Friday, 22 September 2023

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Lessen dependence on foreign labour

Gilbert Goh

It must be tough for the authorities to figure out a sustainable manpower deployment strategy when it comes to the complex issue of aiding local businesses to make profits through the hiring of foreign workers.

Not only is this a time bomb for social cohesion but also a serious political issue in view of the coming General Election. The government has failed to convince the nation that having so many foreign workers in our midst has really “added spices” positively.

Without empathy for jobless and desperate citizens, it would be very difficult to understand why foreigners are seen more as job snatcher than anything else.

In 2008, foreign non-residents (non-PR, non-Singaporean) account for 1.2M people of the entire population. These foreigners snatch popular jobs such as clerks, receptionists, administrators and salesmen. Their actions only affirm the perception that foreign labour in Singapore is hardly foreign talent.

Employers also prefer to hire foreigners, as they are cheaper and more willing to put in extra hours without grumbling. To a foreigner from a third world country, living and working in Singapore is almost a Godsend.

Many foreigners also found work in the coffee shops and factories. Surprisingly, these workers are also given Permanent Resident (PR) status after a while. A S-Pass worker can apply for PR status after one year and normally it will be granted within month of the application. After two years, he will offered a Singapore citizenship.

R-Pass holders earn below $1,800 a month and are not eligible for PR status. R-Pass holders include construction workers, domestic workers, shipyard workers and many who work in the conservancy and landscaping sector. Due to quota on R-Pass workers, some errant employers may “pass off” a R-Pass-qualified worker as a S-Pass one without paying the minimum $1800/month salary.

As many as 200,000 able-Singaporeans have left the country in recent years and not many are considering to return in the near future. A recent survey suggested that 79% of overseas Singaporean students prefer to work abroad than to return to Singapore. More are expected to leave the country in the near future.

To balance out the population exodus, the Government allows companies to import foreigners from neighbouring countries such as China and India without upsetting the racial proportion. Singaporeans find it difficult to comprehend the Government’s lax foreign labour policy. Some have eventually migrated to other countries in anger that they were replaced by foreign substitutes. They further question whether their loyalty for their country is ever reciprocated at all when there is no protection whatever on their livelihood.

It is hardly surprising that economics is the motivation behind Singaporean workers to shun many opportunities in the service sector. Such jobs pay close to S$1000 a month and after CPF deduction, take home pay is reduced to a puny sum of S$800 a month.

If the worker is the sole breadwinner of a family of four, the sum remains insufficient even if top-up from the Workfare Income Supplement Scheme (WISS) is included. WISS tops up a low-wage worker’s salary to the tune of $1,200 a year. To qualify, the Singaporean worker must be at least 35-year-old and earns a montly salary less than $1,500.

On the other hand, employers in labour intensive industries need to re-evaluate if it is still feasible to hire cheap labour. In recent times, many small cleaning companies mushroomed all over Singapore that bidding for cleaning projects has dropped so low that these companies cannot afford to pay their employees a decent salary without suffering a loss.

The authorities may need to re-look into their policy on government contractual bidding for cleaning projects to impact this particular industry sector. Moreover, dependence on labour intensive industries also works contrary against Singapore’s high-falutin aspiration to be a highly industrialised and knowledge-based economy.

In Australia, many blue-collared jobs offered a chance for many locals to earn a decent wage. For example, the construction sector mostly hires local Aussies and very often, even an apprentice is paid a salary of S$3000 a month before taxes. The implementation of minimum wage policy and skills training courses have allow local workers to be adequately compensated for the menial work performed.

Blue collared workers can command as much salaries as any white collared ones due to the niche skills that such jobs required and also many Aussies shun these jobs due to its harsh working environment. Unlike Singapore, there is no easy back door to hiring undervalued foreign workers in Australia.

Local employers should increasingly look at semi-automating their work flow to lessen their dependence on undervalued foreign labour. I have seen how a team of twenty Indian foreign workers line the road during road works in our country with half practically standing around doing nothing.

This is not the best way to deploy manpower even if they come cheaply. In Australia, even the driver of the garbage collection vehicle assists in the daily garbage collection task. And there are 2 additional person in labour team. It is all very professionally done with minimal human efforts.

Singapore cannot afford to contnue its dependence on undervalued labour to advance the economy. More can be done to streamline our operations in order to boost our efficiency. Local workers can then be better compensated when they take on better-valued jobs. Productivity is also raised in the process.

The current dependence on foreign labour will not bear fruit if we want to advance our economy . Not only will it bring forth social unrest but it will seriously jeopardise the employment opportunities of the local work force.

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