I'm a contractor at a bank in Asia and my job is a nightmare. Here's why

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I'm a contractor in Singapore and my job is a nightmare. Here's why

When I first moved to Singapore I took on a contract role in operations so I could get my first break into the banking sector in the city. That was back in 2013. I’ve been in contract roles ever since, even though I’ve tried to secure permanent employment.

More and more people working in IT and operations in Singapore are now contractors, and the expansion of the market is often portrayed by recruiters and banks in a positive light. But this growth is driven by banks taking advantage of a weakening job market – contracting isn’t a career option that most people take out of choice.

While the work you do can be fulfilling and the new skills you pick up can be useful, life as a contractor here isn’t particularly easy. The terms are often tough and the continued prejudice against contractors can make it difficult to find full-time roles. Let me explain.

First of all, there’s the way you’re paid. You don’t get a generous hourly rate in excess of what you’d earn as a permanent employee. You received a contract for X amount of money over X months, or a pro rata annual amount.

This year I’ve also noticed that a few banks have introduced a tough new rule that if you join them as a contractor, you aren’t eligible for a pay review for two years from the start of your first contract.

The benefits you receive as a contractor can vary wildly between banks. I received a generous leave allowance at Standard Chartered, for example, but other firms in Singapore can give you as few as seven days’ leave pro rata a year.

Banks can actually make it very difficult to take any type of time off during your contract. If you fall ill and you’re the main bread winner in the family, this can leave you financially stretched. And banks typically leave it late – certainly until the final month – to tell you whether your contract will be renewed. This can add to any financial anxiety you’re experiencing.

Meanwhile, because of the current economic downturn and cost cutting by global banks, I’m also seeing a new disturbing practice emerge. More banks are offering contracts of just three months (down from the traditional six or 12-month stints), which means they can get away with paying no medical insurance and offering even less leave. When the contract ends and if you’re still needed, the bank starts a brand new three-month contract on the same bad terms.

Having pushed the popularity of contracting in Singapore, you would think banks would be happy when contractors apply for full-time vacancies with them. Not so.

When I go for interviews for permanent roles I’m often asked “why haven’t you got a perm job yet?”. Managers’ attitude is that if you’re on a contract, you’re not good enough for a perm role. But my attitude is to ignore them – you probably don’t want to work for someone like that anyway.

Recruiters are a mixed bunch too. Some have a vested interest in you staying a contractor because they run the contract on behalf of the bank and make money from it. Recruiters won’t always help you find a permanent position.

In the current market, contract roles are simply easier to get in operations as banks offshore and outsource. Permanent jobs usually only crop up if a bank is building a new team or if you know someone in the bank and get a heads-up.

And unfortunately this market is probably here to stay for quite some time. If you have to take a contract, my advice is to study the terms very carefully – even get a lawyer to read them over if you can – because banks can insert some pretty tough clauses in here. And try to negotiate on your holiday and sick-leave terms, so you can at least take some time off if you need it.

Beatrix Lee (we’ve used a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a contractor at a global bank in Singapore.

Image credit: sdominick, Getty

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