Sazzad Hossain
Ashoka Fellow since 2018   |   Singapore

Sazzad Hossain

SDI Academy
Sazzad is changing the experience of migrant workers, helping them use their time abroad to improve their quality of life and ultimately their livelihoods.
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This description of Sazzad Hossain's work was prepared when Sazzad Hossain was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018.


Sazzad is changing the experience of migrant workers, helping them use their time abroad to improve their quality of life and ultimately their livelihoods.

The New Idea

Starting with Bengali workers in Singapore, Sazzad is improving livelihood opportunities for migrant workers by transforming the migrant worker experience from a difficult time endured away from home to earn some money into a period of personal and professional growth. Sazzad believes that migrant workers, as contributors to the building of a nation, deserve a real place in the host country and should be able to capitalize on their stay abroad. Migrant work is ultimately a temporary experience, but it should be an opportunity to develop skills that can be used anywhere. He makes this possible by supporting the workers to foster a growth mindset, empowering them with English skills, and opening doors to professional development opportunities, ultimately empowering the workers to change their destiny.

Through his organization, Social Development Initiative (SDI) Academy, Sazzad has built a community of empowered migrant workers with stronger professional prospects by leveraging English language instruction as a key entry-point to enhance their capacity to navigate safely and effectively in a foreign environment and to access growth opportunities. SDI has developed a creative, affordable and powerful English language curriculum, which unlike other existing language courses, is based on the specific needs of the migrant workers and focused on helping them communicate more effectively in their workplaces and beyond. SDI builds on this with other courses in computer literacy and financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Through partnerships with universities and others, participants then have access to diploma and degree programs, as well as vocational trainings and other professional opportunities that were otherwise inaccessible. Sazzad is also now shaping development opportunities pre-departure from and post-return to their home countries.

All of SDI’s work is specifically designed to develops workers’ self-confidence and sense of dignity and trust, thus fostering a growth mindset that can propel them to bigger dreams, as well as to foster a community orientation of mutual support. It is also designed to cultivate social integration in the host country where there is severe stigma toward migrant workers.

Sazzad has been changing the lives of thousands of migrant workers by creating development pathways all along their journey. By doing so, Sazzad is not only increasing the migrant workers’ quality of life and capacity to advocate for themselves against exploitation, but also enhancing their livelihood by helping them to realize the untapped potential for their time as temporary workers and transform their stay into an opportunity to develop necessary skills for their next stage in life.

The Problem

Singapore’s rapid development over the few last decades can be attributed in part to the hard work of foreign workers. They represent 20% of the population, almost 40% of the entire labour force of the country (this figure includes domestic helpers and expatriates). The migrant workers are mainly employed in the construction, manufacturing and shipping industries. Many of these low-skilled migrant workers are from Bangladesh, Thailand, China and Indonesia. To support themselves and their families, they often drop out of school in their country of origin to take a job working alone in Singapore under a legal work pass for an average period of 8-10 years, to then return home or even go to work in another country.

Despite the fact they are legally mandated to work and live in the territory, they still live on the margins of society. Geographically, they live in dormitories on the periphery of the city, with little or no privacy and long working hours. Socially, these workers are not experiencing any form of social inclusion, living separately to Singaporean people, most of the time remaining with their own country-men and not mingling with migrant workers from other countries. In terms of quality of living, from the moment they sign with their placement agency, they may be at risk of abuse, exploitation, workplace injuries (with 14,000 accidents per year), confinement, substandard living conditions and much more.

Governmental and non-governmental organizations have been working for years to assist in solving the immediate problems faced by migrant workers such as legal, medical aid, lodging or advocacy. Thus, the current support structure for migrant workers is mainly a crisis-management strategy and not focused on preventing issues before they occur by providing the right tools for empowerment and education at the very beginning of their stay.

This leads to a situation where migrant workers spend a significant portion of their life in a foreign country living through a difficult experience, without any positive or tangible takeaways. Determined to reverse this cycle, Sazzad saw a need and demand for affordable English language instruction – particularly because of numerous workplace accidents caused as a result of misunderstood safety instructions – and recognized it as an opportunity to support migrant workers to unlock new opportunities for their lives.

The Strategy

The SDI Academy model is changing migrant workers’ mindsets by creating a learning environment where its members feel dignified, powerful and self-motivated to improve their stay in Singapore and beyond. At the heart of this initiative is a holistic education program strengthened by the building of a strong community and amplified by a supporting network of different partners acting with Sazzad all along the migrant workers’ journey.

At the core of SDI Academy’s success is the quality of its instruction and its proprietary, customized curriculum developed by Sazzad as well as its expanding array of courses being offered. Realizing that his target audience had specific needs in managing the English language, Sazzad took a break from teaching to spend over a year learning how to tailor his courses to first, respond to the workers’ real time needs (ie. understanding safety instructions) and to then maximize their learning potential by teaching useful vocabulary and expressions. Putting all these elements together, the textbook Dr. English was born, translated into 6 languages and distributed to more than 2,000 workers. The curriculum tailors its courses based on the industry that the student works in (ie. construction or shipping) and focuses on practical language instruction. Currently in development is the Dr. English app which uses AI technology to help teach oral expression, pronunciation and enables continuous practice outside the classroom.

By setting the foundation with Basic English knowledge, SDI Academy students can move onto other educational modules such as computer literacy, financial literacy, oral presentation and even entrepreneurship skills. Interwoven into these courses are practical messages related to health and wellbeing, Singaporean societal norms and gender equality. By giving them self-confidence as well as a cultural primer and educational base, SDI Academy opens the door for migrant workers to magnify other learning opportunities outside the academy. For example, a partnership with a private Singaporean educational institution for higher learning has facilitated the graduation of over 50 Diploma students and 14 Bachelor/Master’s Degree students. Also, the improvement of their English language abilities allows the migrant workers to register for vocational trainings paid by their employers formerly inaccessible to them. As a result, multiple migrant workers have been promoted to higher positions within their companies, some even giving TED Talks to share their experience and shift people’s mindsets regarding their community. Further, one student was able to improve his circumstances dramatically by following up his completed SDI English courses with upskilling that led to a 10x increase in his salary and a manager position at ExxonMobil.

Two of the main challenges for institutes such as SDI are a high retention and graduation rate and Sazzad has found a way to surmount them. Regarding the high level of constraints, the migrant workers are facing, the classes must be affordable and accessible. Recognizing this, SDI offers courses after work hours and in different areas of the city where migrant workers live thanks to partnerships with 4 dormitories and 4 universities. For example, the National University of Singapore has allowed SDI to utilize free auditorium space to host its classes and the Association of Process Industry (ASPRI) has granted free access to an integrated computer training lab for SDI Academy IT Literacy courses. Not only does this help keep the cost affordable for the workers, but gives them access to university campuses and other resources that can help inspire them toward bigger goals. It also creates opportunity for a different interaction with Singaporean society.
Going forward, SDI aims to coordinate and collaborate even more with the workers’ employers to further facilitate accessibility to their classes, consistent with Sazzad’s plan to switch from a B2C model in which students pay their fees to a B2B model in which employers help pay the fees. By working directly with the employers, Sazzad can emphasize the safety benefit of his courses to the companies and propose mandatory enrollment for its workers given both the economic incentive for reducing workplace injuries and the strong governmental pressure to control the frequency of these types of accidents.

This holistic education program has been successfully strengthened by the building of a strong supportive community. Indeed, Sazzad has been spreading a contagious enthusiasm for learning by engaging and inspiring professional teachers, former students and local volunteers. First to establish a level of trust and to facilitate learning and cultural understanding, only native speakers in the students’ native languages are employed as teachers. The SDI team is thus able to challenge migrant workers to reinvent their future by creating awareness of the opportunities they could choose to take and by sharing past students’ success stories. Sazzad has even nominated a group of ‘Achievers’ out of this group of past graduates. These 180 SDI Ambassador speak at dormitories to spread the word about the initiative, volunteer for community events and act as role models to demonstrate the potential outcome of this kind of journey. On top of being extremely cost-effective, this model is especially impactful as it has the dual result of creating a sense of purpose and pride for the recent grads as well as inspiring potential students.

Sazzad also has a broader goal of changing mindsets by addressing social integration issues for the migrant workers in Singapore through a ‘Befriender’ program. Approximately 200 volunteers are recruited through campus initiatives that serve to maintain a steady flow of willing recruits each year. The volunteers take part in the SDI training and participate regularly in outreach events with the purpose of matching Singaporean individuals or even families with migrant workers to encourage them to break down the walls of cultural barriers through celebration during public holidays. These kinds of social events not only help migrant workers feel home away from home by facilitating interactions with kids and families, but also result in a new perspective for the Singaporean participants.

Thanks to the quality of its programs, the permanent focus on accessibility and strong community spirit instilled in its DNA, SDI Academy has already impacted the lives of over 6,000 migrant workers since 2013, mainly Bangladeshi and Indian workers, with the aim to reach out other nationalities such as mainland Chinese in the future.

Beyond the educational and community aspects of his strategy, Sazzad has managed to amplify SDI Academy’s impact through a comprehensive partnership strategy, working with different kinds of stakeholders involved all along the migrant workers’ journey (NGOs, companies and government). This allows him to work further on their socio-economic mobility by helping them think about it at every step of their experience. For example, in terms of pre-departure programs, Sazzad is building a partnership with BRAC to create a skills development and vocational training center to prepare workers even before they arrive, giving them perspectives and helping them prepare a strategy for their own lives.

In the same vein, after lobbying the government for two years, Sazzad is collaborating with the Ministry of Manpower to set up mandatory orientation sessions for every migrant worker entering the country. Beginning in Fall 2018 in partnership with a training institute, the program will reach approximately 6,000 expected participants each month, helping them onboard faster regarding rules, regulations and culture to empower them from the very beginning of their stay.

Finally, because the migrant workers will ultimately return to their country of origin, Sazzad is also putting a lot of effort into developing partnerships with some accelerator/incubator programs in Bangladesh with the purpose of helping migrant workers launch their own venture. Having led a successful pilot with 6 students for the past two years by teaching them basic knowledge to run a company (strategy, marketing, accounting etc.) Sazzad is now structuring a mini MBA crash course that is being devised in partnership with a Singaporean business school. In this context, the Ministry of Manpower referred SDI Academy to the Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek Foundation, which is considering sponsoring this MBA course and providing start-up seed fund for a pilot project involving 10 migrant worker entrepreneurs.

Going forward, Sazzad will focus even more on developing the pre and post-departure programs to address all steps of the migrant worker’s journey in Singapore, while developing new partnerships to replicate his model in other hosting countries in the region, including Malaysia and Dubai.

The Person

Sazzad was born in Bangladesh and grew-up in a middle-class family of educators. At a very young age, he was already sensitive to inequalities in the access to education and with his friends, set-up an education fund for the underprivileged children in his community. At the age of 11, he moved to Singapore to join his father who was living in the country for a decade. At that point, he experienced firsthand the struggles of the language barrier and had to drop two grades to work on his own to catch up.

Through casual encounters with Bangladeshi workers in his neighborhood, he learned how communication was a huge issue for them. He began giving informal English lessons around a park bench and, realizing there was a huge need for more, he soon decided to structure and professionalize his approach.

Despite the reluctance of his parents, wanting him to increase his own socio-economic mobility by focusing only on his studies, and driven by the empathy he obviously experienced for the migrant workers, he decided to develop his own English instruction methodology to really adapt to their needs. His natural entrepreneurship skills led him to launch a professional and self-sustainable structure, based on a thoughtful business model.

As a 24-year-old freshmen, he runs an organization of 3 full time employees, 12 part time and over 200 volunteers. In only 6 years, through sheer persistence and consistency, he has not only managed to be recognized as a key player in the migrant workers sector but also as a young role model in the Singaporean society, having - for example - been offered by the National Youth Council to represent Singapore in the Commonwealth Youth Council as chairperson.

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