Worries over agent's fees add to hardship
But Chinese bus drivers say the thousands of dollars they paid their agents to work here is a fair deal. -ST
SINGAPORE - Ever since arriving in Singapore in July last year, Mr Li has been surviving on $6 a day.
The bus driver - who did not want to give his full name or identify which company he works for - has to live frugally because he not only has to send money back to his wife and three children in China, but also has to pay off the hefty 25,000 yuan (S$5,000) employment fee that he had incurred to get his job.
It was what a Chinese recruitment agency had charged him to get the job, process documents and buy a one-way ticket to Singapore.
For the past 1 1/2 years, the Henan native has not eaten anything more than a simple bowl of noodles or rice with mixed vegetables for lunch.
Drivers from China typically start with monthly salaries of around $1,100, excluding overtime, and, like most foreign workers, try to spend as little as possible.
Mr Li says: "I paid so much money to get here, so I have to save every cent I can."
Even then, he adds, it took him more than a year to break even.
Some of his fellow countrymen take a lot longer - two years or more - because they spend on cigarettes, smartphones and even iPads, he said.
Yet many of the applicants at a recent recruitment drive for bus drivers in China say the thousands of dollars that they have paid their agents is a fair deal.
Singapore's public transport operators sub-contract the hiring of drivers from China to Singapore- based employment agents, which then work with their Chinese counterparts to run the recruitment.
A recruitment notice online says the 25,000 yuan that successful applicants pay these agents is used for visa application, service and management fees, and the air ticket to Singapore.
Agents say it also goes into the drivers' training and assessment, processing of documents and visas, and into booking function rooms in luxury hotels for the recruitment drives, as requested by the Singapore firms.
"It's impossible for us to pay for these places ourselves, so we need to factor it into the agent fee," says one agent, who did not want to be named.
Social worker Jolovan Wham of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics, a Singapore group, believes the sum takes into account work permit application fees and the foreign worker levy that employers have to pay.
But he stresses that the numbers still do not quite add up.
The work permit application and insurance expenses should not cost more than a few hundred dollars, he notes. "There is no paper trail to show where the money goes."
In May, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), when announcing amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, said it had found employers declaring higher salaries than what they were paying their foreign workers, and asking the latter to pay their own levies and insurance premiums.
Activists also note that while laws insist that workers be refunded half their agent's fees if they end their contracts early, enforcement is tricky as most transactions are carried out in China and receipts are not recognised in Singapore.
"Some receipts don't carry the name of the company," notes Mr Kenneth Soh, a social worker with activist group Transient Workers Count Too.
"Other companies put an amount that complies with MOM's regulations but charge the applicants an exorbitant sum."
"If you pay $5,000 to come here and you don't even get a job, you would at least want a refund," she says.
Mr Wham feels that Singapore employers should bear the costs of hiring foreign labour instead of transferring them to the workers.
But Mr David Leong, the managing director of Singapore-based agent PeopleWorldwide Consulting, argues that this arises because of the high demand for Singapore jobs in China.
"For every job you have, 100 workers would want to get the job. So the worker will pay money to get the job," he points out.
What remains clear, however, is that the agent's fee can also affect workers' decisions to stay or go.
At the recent strike by SMRT bus drivers, one Chinese national revealed that many new arrivals had wanted to leave after seeing the work and living conditions here, but "they were persuaded by the older colleagues to stay on only because they need to pay back the agent's fee".
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