Raising The Voices of Migrant Workers in Singapore

Categories: Entrepreneurship

Sojourner Brother is creating an app that empowers employers of migrant workers to better hire, manage, and care for their migrant workers in Singapore.

The land of milk and honey

Like thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asia, Mominul was finally in the land of his dreams, Singapore. He knew working here would be challenging, but he thought he would be able to regularly send money home to his family and live decently. He had imagined that once here, he will give his best at work, have enough money to return to his homeland and marry the girl of his dreams.

True to what he thought, he was able to help his family monetarily, but rather than returning to his homeland and living with the girl of his dreams, he found himself working in a low-paying construction job for eight years. 

However, there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel when he met a local recruiting agent who promised to find him a new and better job. This agent demanded a recruitment fee of $1000. While this was lower than the hefty $10,000 to $15,000 a migrant coming from Bangladesh or India would pay, this was still a large sum of money to pay for a new job. 

Did you know?

Such agent fees have to be paid because migrants like Mominul have little to no access to basic information, like which employers are hiring, or what kind of jobs are available. They have to work through intermediaries like these agents, who charge varying and often exorbitant agent fees, to get this information. 

By law, recruitment agents in Singapore cannot collect more than two months’ salary from an employee. But Singapore seldom has control over fees paid to agents. Therefore, many migrants toil under a burden of huge debt (borrowed from their family and community back home) to pay these agents. This debt hanging over them means they would rather suffer in silence when they experience any ill-treatment at work than to speak out, and potentially lose their job, their only source of income to pay off this debt.

On top of that, some unethical agents may also not be completely honest about the job and remuneration package that the migrants would be entering into – as we will see in Mominul’s story later. 

A brother from another mother

From left, Mominul with Joshua and his wife, Christine.

On the other side of sunny Singapore, was a young man called Joshua Lum. Joshua was an active volunteer at free meal programs for injured migrant workers, research projects to find out more about migrants’ work environments, and clinics at migrant worker dormitories. 

Joshua’s path crossed with Mominul when a mutual friend, Mike, who was teaching Mominul English at an activity centre, introduced them. When Mike had to return to his home country, Mominul reached out to Joshua and asked if he could continue teaching him. Joshua agreed to it, and soon, they became friends.

One afternoon, Joshua’s phone rang loudly. It was Mominul. He excitedly shared that his agent found him a new job, and he had decided to tender his resignation to explore new horizons. Joshua was really happy for Mominul. 

Falling to a scam

A week later, Mominul called Joshua again. With tears, disappointment, and disbelief, Mominul lamented to Joshua that the new job promised by the agent was not what he had expected. Mominul had paid a large sum to the agent to secure him a job that was supposedly better than his previous job. To his dismay, the job scope was different from what was promised to him. The salary package was also lower than what was agreed upon, and the working hours were even longer than his previous employment. 

That was the call that jolted Joshua into action and made him realise something had to change.

This was not the first time he heard of a problem like this, but this was the first time he knew of a friend that was going through such an ordeal – this hit close to home. Mominul was fully qualified and had a lot of experience in his work But because of how the current system is structured, there is not enough information for him to have the employment opportunities or labour mobility that we are accustomed to or privileged to have.

Although there are numerous non-profit organisations working tirelessly to help migrants when they get injured or promote the welfare of migrant workers, Joshua realised that there was a lack of solutions to address these systemic issues, especially from an employer point of view. 

Employers of migrant workers are given a lot of responsibility to care for their migrant workers, but not every employer is equipped to do so. Employers that do right by their migrant workers can play a big role in their workers’ lived experience in Singapore. And so Joshua decided that the most sustainable way to address systemic problems migrant workers face is to align the incentives of employers with the best interest of the migrant workers — using a digital solution.

How Sojourner Brother plans to help migrant workers

Hence, he created Sojourner Brother. Sojourner Brother is a social enterprise offering digital solutions that enable and empower employers to hire, manage, and care for their migrant workers in an efficient, and compassionate manner. 

Sojourner Brother’s vision is to help employers of migrant workers achieve their business goals while incentivising them to seek the best interest of their migrant workers – fulfilling every migrant’s dream of lifting his family out of poverty through increased access to job opportunities and to enjoy fair and dignifying employment practices.

Using tech to hire and get hired fairly

Sojourner Brother will start off by offering a low-cost, simple to use, 24/7, digital hiring tool that connects hiring employers and migrants seeking job opportunities. This will encourage direct hiring by employers, cut out exorbitant agent fees that migrants pay, and create increased transparency and structure in the hiring process. With Sojourner Brother, migrants like Mominul would have more information on available jobs, and not have to pay hefty sums of recruitment fees to connect with Singapore-based companies to get a job. With Sojourner Brother being a more accessible and affordable alternative to finding jobs, migrants who experience injustices at work may also be more willing to speak up for their rights. This is because, even if they lose their job (due to speaking up), they can use Sojourner Brother, without having to pay high agent fees, to find a new job.

As employers of migrant workers typically care about many other aspects of their business besides hiring migrant workers, Joshua knows that Sojourner Brother needs to offer more value to employers beyond the hiring tool. As such, in the medium term, Sojourner Brother wants to also help companies manage their workers and projects better (e.g., easier tracking of workers work hours and management of suppliers), all while incentivising employers to remunerate their migrant workers fairly and punctually, for their work done. 

Drawing strength and support from like-minded people

When Sojourner Brother was still in a very early ideation stage, Joshua signed up for the Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Young Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) Global Programme. This programme gave him a network of mentors to exchange ideas with, and he also learned what it takes to start and scale a social enterprise in a fast-changing and volatile world. As a first time entrepreneur, this programme helped refine Joshua’s business plan, and define his social impact goals better. Sojourner Brother is currently building the first prototype of the hiring tool and will be launching the tool in early 2022.

While there have been a lot of moves and reforms to improve the lived experience of migrant workers, since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we cannot rest on our laurels just yet. There is still much work to be done. Joshua concluded by noting that “Just as many of the challenges migrants face today have persisted because of inefficiencies and human greed, Sojourner Brother also needs to be equally persistent in trying to solve these problems, to make a difference in the lives of Singapore’s sojourners, our brothers from across the borders”. 

Want to do your part to help change the landscape for migrant workers in Singapore but don’t know where to start? All you need to do is to create awareness through impactful storytelling and word-of-mouth.

Head over to www.sojobro.com to check out the latest updates on Sojourner Brother. 

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