Enforcing “Fair Employment” needs more bite.

By Roy P.

Gilbert Goh, founder of Transitioning.org re-posted a reply on his Facebook wall by Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) to a Singaporean whistle-blower who claimed she lost her job in the banking industry after being replaced by a foreigner (Read story here). The reply from TAFEP, I’m sad to say, comes across as a flaccid attempt at trying to seek some sort of redress for the unfortunate PMET in question, and I wonder if more could be done to bring errant hiring practices to task.

In recent weeks, there had been a wave of “exposures” by netizens on a crusade of sorts, published across various popular social media platforms including Facebook, The Online Citizen, The Real Singapore, Hardware Zone forum etc highlighting the placements of discriminatory job ads, starting with Swiss-themed restaurant La Fondue seeking to look for new chefs to join their “all Filipino team”:

Then came international recruitment agency Randstad, with their controversial job ad posted for a Merchaniser Planner that stated “This position is open to candidates who are not Singaporean Citizens or PR”:

I did a little online searching on my own, and I found an ad by yet another international recruitment agency placed in Feb 2013 that clearly eliminated Singaporean citizens from applying:

Right. No wonder people are pissed off: we have close to 25,300 Singaporean citizens who are unemployed, and there you have employers and recruiters restricting job options to foreigners trying to come in to work in Singapore.

The “experts” from the recruitment agencies claim there is a lack of Singaporeans possessing the expertise required in many jobs advertised, and I challenge that: are these agencies implying that, despite our world-class education system, we are still backward in manpower competency and capability building for common jobs like Administrative Managers, Human Resource specialists, merchandising planners and front-line service staff? And all this despite the fact that we have foreigners wanting to come to our universities, polytechnics and private institutions to gain knowledge and skills for an international labour market? Don’t make me laugh, because I seriously doubt your “expert” opinion, really; and obviously these recruiters are just trying to pull a fast one to meet their sales targets — no different from unscrupulous insurance and real estate agents who distort market information and statistics as part of their sales tactics.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin says MOM is investigating firms over the placements of discriminatory job ads, and TAFEP reinforced guidelines on what companies and employers can and can’t say in the ads:

The conventional mode of thinking is that since there is a quota on the number of S Passes and Work Permits issued to companies, theoretically speaking, there are measures in place to safeguard the employment of Singaporean citizens against the over-employment of foreigners working in companies here.

From what I gather from people I know working in human resources, I can see that is not the case in practice: MNCs and SMEs alike blatantly flout the loopholes in the system, and it’s not that difficult at all, really: all I need do as a business-owner heavily reliant on “cheaper” foreign labour is to register another business unit or shell company, and then I get another supply of S-pass and WP quotas to play around with, and after that, do an internal re-shuffle of the manpower to the parent company. Furthermore, the ratio of Singaporeans employed versus the permissible foreign labour quota isn’t tagged to job function — meaning to say I can get away with employing more Filipino/ PRC/ Malaysian/ Myanmar frontline staff by hiring a couple of more Singaporean managers and executives in the administrative functions.

Which solves the great mystery as to why so many companies here in Singapore, particularly those in the F&B and services industry seem to be able to get away with staffing practically their entire frontline from over-the-counter sales to customer service with foreign workers.

And we haven’t even touched on the Employment Pass (EP) holders for management and executive jobs — there is no quota system to my knowledge that limits the supply of EPs that can issued for foreign employees in any company here.

So while MOM is looking into discriminatory job ad placements, there is no real bite to any legislation pertaining to actual discriminatory hiring practices: most to most, MOM would slap a fine on companies for placements of job ads deemed discriminatory or for actual breaches of discriminatory hiring practices, but really, what’s a firm advice from the Ministry and maybe a few fines here and there compared to the real costs of potential income losses by Singapore citizens being excluded from getting hired?

My take is that the Ministry perhaps needs to take a more strong-handed approach in ensuring companies do not blatantly resort to hiring foreigners over Singaporeans by exploiting whatever loopholes in the system. My suggestions:

  1. In addition to imposing a quota on the number of S-Passes and WPs, perhaps we could throw in the possibility of allowing companies to temporarily increase their foreign hire quotas by selling a permit (say $300 per permit) per additional S-Pass/WP issued with the added condition that they would need to ensure their Singaporean/foreign hire ratio is met within the next 12 months; failing which the company may be liable for legal action taken against them. This way, we ensure companies that are reliant on foreign labour for some reason (e.g. the construction and marine industry) still has some means to fulfill manpower requirements for their projects, but at the same time, we stamp out the possibility of companies finding ways to replace the supposedly-costlier Singaporean hires with foreign alternatives to cut manpower costs.
  2. Perhaps it is time to relook/rethink the need to impose a limit on EP-holders in companies. Alternatively, we could adopt a system like in many countries where a given percentage of senior management hires have to be Singaporean citizens or PRs. At present, under the Companies Act, every company only needs one of its directors who is “ordinarily resident” in Singapore, which I take to mean the directors do not even need to be citizens or PRs, since the definition of “ordinarily resident” can be taken to mean “habitual and normal residence in one place.” That said, it is possible for companies like La Fondue to get away with their “all Filipino team” if the owner and maybe the token dishwasher and cleaning aunty are Singaporeans.
  3. Suspend all hiring by companies being investigated for discriminatory hiring practices. And by this, I mean any form of discrimination, be it in terms of nationality, age or gender bias, until such time the Ministry is satisfied the errant company has corrected its hiring practices. This last move would probably have the largest punch, since this is likely to hit the bottom-line particularly for recruitment agencies, many of whom are the biggest culprits in perpetuating the myth that certain expertise knowledge is lacking in Singaporeans. Fact is, many of these agencies, especially those headquartered out of Asia, are actually in the business of selling CVs, and since there is a large supply of these CVs from their native countries, the recruiters simply try their luck at pushing candidates out from the databases to their clients in the hopes of closing quick deals.

As to how my suggestions would work out in the greater scheme of things, well, that’s for those government scholars to analyse and figure if what I mentioned makes sense — and of course, need to gather solid data to verify first.

For now, I’m just waiting to see what comes out of this whole discriminatory job ad fiasco, and I would certainly hope it’s not, as what Leong Sze Hian suggests, is “one big Shakespearean play“.

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