Singapore: T. Junardhan is helping install plumbing at a luxury shopping and residential tower rising in Singapore’s prime Orchard Road tourist belt. He can also balance your books if the need arises.
Junardhan, an Indian with a degree in accountancy, is one of almost 150,000 foreigners labouring in Singapore’s booming construction sector. Some complain of poor living conditions, over-work, homesickness and non-payment of wages. But they say the risks and challenges are outweighed by one thing: lure of money far greater than anything they could earn at home.
Junardhan, 23, of Andhra Pradesh state, said he has an accountancy degree from a college near his home town but low wages in that profession drove him to put down his pen and pick up his tools overseas.
Construction sector offering lucrative jobs
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower says about 145,000 foreigners are employed in the construction sector, where $2 billion casino developments, subway lines, residential and other projects have generated high demand for labourers.
The ministry did not provide a breakdown by nationality but many of the workers come from India as well as Bangladesh and Thailand.
The Thai embassy said 47,000 of its nationals are working in Singapore, mostly in construction, while the Bangladeshi embassy said about 40,000 of its citizens are construction workers.
“I could earn $190 a month as a new accountant in India. Here I earn four times that,” Junardhan said. His friend, R. Guna, told him it would be worth his while to leave his village for the Southeast Asian city-state of high-rise towers and expressways.
“I told him over the phone about the salary I got working in Singapore and managed to convince him,” said Guna, 24. Other Indian workers said they make $16-18 a day, also much more than they would get at home.
Non-payment of wages is an issue
Non-payment of wages is “the number one issue” that construction workers are seeking help with when they call the TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) migrant workers’ advocacy group, said TWC2 president John Gee.
“It’s usually one worker that calls in to seek help but he is usually part of a whole group that has been affected,” Gee said, adding that many non-payment cases involved smaller contractors.
Guna complained he went through “torture” during his first stint as a construction worker five years ago, with long hours and sometimes no break.
Rising inflation compounding labour conditions
Labourers complain that Singapore’s rising inflation, which struck an annual 6.7% in March -- the highest in 26 years -- is eating into their wages.
“Singapore now is very expensive. I can spend up to $7-8 a day just on food alone,” said R. Tamilmani, 22, who arrived two years ago from India’s Tamil Nadu state with his childhood friend V. Muthukrishnan, 26.
As maintenance men at a construction site they each earn $16 a day, a figure which has remained “more or less the same,” Muthukrishnan said.
Indians particularly miss home
Long hours on the job and a shortage of spare cash limit the workers’ options for relaxation. But on Sundays and public holidays they crowd into Little India, several blocks of shops and restaurants that are also the throbbing cultural heart of Singapore’s own ethnic Indian minority, who make up about nine percent of the local population.
Thai workers gather around the Golden Mile shopping centre, an ageing mall with Thai karaoke lounges, food stalls and a supermarket that carries delicacies from home. Their wallets may get fatter in Singapore, but their hearts remain in India.