Migrant workers aren't poor, you need money to come work in Singapore: Editor

There is a misconception that migrant workers from Bangladesh are poor and come from low class families. This is far from the truth, says Mr AKM Mohsin, chief editor of monthly Bengali publication Banglar Kanthar that is distributed in Singapore and Malaysia.

"There are a lot of educated people who are unemployed in Bangladesh. Due to political instability and bad economic conditions, there's only development in the public sector and none in the government sector. The government is unable to provide a lot of educated people with jobs.

"Those who migrate are not very educated, they're middle-class educated. They study O levels and below. They are not expecting jobs in Bangladesh. And the ones available to them are low-class jobs. So that's why they expect to go overseas and work in a foreign country," explains Mr Mohsin during an interview at his office at Rowell Road.

For a worker to come to Singapore, around $15,000 is needed. The bulk of the money goes to mediators, agents and recruiters from the village. A portion also goes to training.

As such, workers do not usually come from poor families as the ones who move abroad to become construction workers need to be able to afford the fees.

"In the name of training, there is also human trafficking. Our government says they are exporting manpower to earn foreign currency and remittance but this is also one kind of human trafficking," states Mr Mohsin.


To many Bangladeshis here, Mr Mohsin is seen as a voice for their community.

A quiet pensive man, the 53-year-old is not one to warm up very easily. He speaks concisely and with purpose, and only ever raised his voice with tiny excitement towards the end of our interview, when he emphasised how he can only afford a monthly publication.

You can feel his pride even in his silence. When his mobile rang, a whole new voice comes out when he's speaking to his countrymen - loud, still purposeful, and with authority.

His journey to Singapore began in 1991 when his family sent him here for his studies. This was during a time when Bangladesh was under military rule and Mr Mohsin was a bit of an activist. His parents felt he would be safer here.

Photo: The Best of You

"I've been in Singapore for almost 28 years. When I first came here, I was very young and unmarried. I like this country. It's very stable. First, I came here as a tourist, then I like this country, I wanted to stay back. At that time, our country was under military rule so it was safer for me to stay here," reminisces Mr Mohsin.

When he was completing his studies in Singapore in 1994, he felt the need to do something for his fellow countrymen. He asked himself: "What is needed for the community? I think should publish a Bengali newspaper. That time, some workers met me and they told me stories on how they were treated as construction workers. So this inspired me."

These stories included the mistreatment of migrant workers here, such as not getting paid their salaries. Other instances are of those trying to force their workers to get on the next flight home when they have been injured so that they can avoid giving them compensation.

Workers here also face challenges in their personal lives, such as their wives having affairs back home.

Mr Mohsin commits his time to helping these workers and also publishes their stories in the newspaper so as to raise awareness to the community.


"When I came to Singapore 28 years ago, I observed that local people - some not all - some people look down on labourers. But I know my countrymen not born as labourers.

"They are all from middle-class families. Those who are street beggars cannot afford to come overseas. There are huge amounts of migration costs. They have ability to collect money to go overseas.

When I came to Singapore 28 years ago, I observed that local people - some not all - some people look down on labourers. But I know my countrymen not born as labourers.

When local NGOs and migrant activists visit Bangladesh, many return surprised at how big the houses are in the villages, said Mr Mohsin, who added that the workers live in big houses, with big ponds and land.

"But after the workers come here, they get shocked. They don't know the situation and how they are treated.

"Some Singapore employers, foremen and local people treat them like animals. When I came to Singapore during that time, the situation was very bad. Local people treat them like labourers. They share their stories with me. This is what inspired me to start a newspaper," elaborates Mr Mohsin.


Mr Mohsin was still a student when he started Banglar Kantha in 1999 together with a Bangladeshi businessman. However, he pulled out after the publication started making a loss. To kickstart his publication, Mr Mohsin borrowed $2,500 from his family back in Bangladesh.

After becoming a permanent resident here, he applied for a permit with the Media Development Authority to start the publication again. By 2006, and with $40,000, he produced between 5,000 and 7,000 copies that serves a community of 120,000 Bangladeshis in Singapore and Malaysia.

"Nowadays, the newspaper is sustained by advertising revenue. The migrant workers are given the newspaper for free and to sponsored dormitories who buy from us, and then distribute to their migrant worker tenants.

"This is my only livelihood but I also do translations, and interpretation work for migrant-related cases with law firms and Ministry of Manpower, but that's not regular," said Mr Mohsin.

Half of the publication is made up of contributions from migrant workers who write poetry and stories of their experiences in Singapore, as well as their lives in Bangladesh.

Over the years the poems have culminated into competitions between the workers and have attracted local student groups to join in.

Mr Mohsin said the poetry and writing competitions have been widely organised by the National Library, and has helped to show Singaporeans that migrant workers are human too and with talent.

"Singapore is very expensive. We cannot afford to have staff here. The five staff in Bangladesh contribute news, current affairs, social and political news, entertainment, sports - all from Bangladesh," explained Mr Mohsin about Banglar Kantha's content.

Printing of the publication, its layout and graphics are all done in Bangladesh. The printed copies are sent by air cargo every month to Singapore that Mr Mohsin personally collects from the airport. He is almost a one-man show here sustaining his commitment and passion to his community.


Noticing that his fellow countrymen had no place to go to unwind here, Mr Mohsin opened up his office space for them to use as a cultural centre and a place for get-togethers - almost like a safe haven for those in need.

Mr Mohsin is also involved in a social movement The Best Of You, which celebrates the accomplishments and life experiences of people in Singapore. He publicises short stories about migrant workers' lives and experiences in Singapore. 

However, with all his doing good comes sacrifice, and unfortunately, Mr Mohsin's family life suffers.

The father of three admits that he does not have any good relations with them because he spends too much time at work.

"It's always about the migrant workers. From the morning, I wake up at  9 or 10 o'clock and they are all in school. And when I go back home at midnight, they are asleep. They never see me," said Mr Mohsin, who added that he goes back to work on Sunday afternoons too.

"It's very sad. I give a lot of my effort to my countrymen but I never did anything for my family. I just feed them. I cannot balance with my work and my family," said Mr Mohsin regretfully.

It's very sad. I give a lot of my effort to my countrymen but I never did anything for my family. I just feed them. I cannot balance with my work and my family.

Of course, he regards his work as one of his children.

"Ten years I have been nursing this and this is also my livelihood. I'm interested to get at least one child to study mass communications. My elder one studied it for a few months, but she said 'I'm not interested'," laments Mr Mohsin.

His wish is for someone to take over when the day comes that he has to give up his business.

Till then, he trudges on finding satisfaction in the stories and poems he helps to share from his community, providing a safe place and helping hand for those who need it.


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