The phenomenon of foreigners working in blue collar jobs in Singapore while on social visit passes is an issue which some have observed and raised previously. In 2009, The Online Citizen highlighted this in an article titled: “Why’re foreigners on social visit passes allowed to work in S’pore?”
In Parliament in January, two Members of Parliament highlighted this to the Minister for Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin.
MP for Tampines GRC, Baey Yam Keng, asked if the ministry was concerned that they “are contributing to a wage depression of Singapore workers in similar trades and, if so, how is the Ministry addressing this.”
MP for Aljunied GRC, Low Thia Khiang, asked how the ministry was enforcing the law on those who work here illegally. He also said “there are Malaysians who hold construction workers’ permits, but are doing other jobs which are not related to construction.” He asked how seriously the MOM I in monitoring the situation. “I have received feedback that MOM tends to keep a ‘closed eye’ on these engagements,” Mr Low said.
Here is the exchange in Parliament in full:
Mr Baey Yam Keng asked the Acting Minister for Manpower with regard to Malaysians who commute to Singapore to work (a) how many and what percentage are engaged in the informal sector of menial and other blue collar jobs (eg, plumbers, air-conditioner servicemen, electricians); and (b) whether there is a concern that they are contributing to a wage depression of Singapore workers in similar trades and, if so, how is the Ministry addressing this.
The Acting Minister for Manpower (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin): Mdm Speaker, across the overall group of Malaysian Work Permit Holders (WPHs) in Singapore, about 15% are in blue collar jobs, such as plumbers, air-conditioner servicemen and electricians.
We have measures to help local workers even as companies are allowed to bring in foreign workers to augment their workforce. One of the measures is the Foreign Worker Levy (FWL), which raises the cost of the foreign worker. The Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC) is another measure that sets a limit on the proportion of foreign workers that can be employed. Firms that have reached their DRC limit will have to recruit and retain more locals in order for them to be eligible to hire more foreign workers.
Over the past few years, as part of our overall tightening effort in order for us to restructure the economy and to move towards more manpower-lean setups, MOM has been reviewing both the levy and DRC on a regular basis. There has been progressive increase in levies for both S-Pass and Work Permit Holders for all sectors, with the latest changes taking effect from 1 July 2014 and 1 July 2015. This is very important for companies to note the dates which are coming up quite soon. There were also progressive DRC cuts in the Services sector from 50% to 45% in July 2012 and from 45% to 40% in July 2013.
But that is only part of the picture. We are also continuing our efforts to uplift low-wage workers in Singapore through creating good jobs, providing opportunities for them to enhance their employability and grow their incomes sustainably, and ensuring that they continue to share the fruits of Singapore’s progress.
Mr Baey Yam Keng: Thank you, Madam. Perhaps, I need to clarify my question. I was referring to the informal sector of such tradesmen. I am aware of freelance plumbers, air-conditioner servicemen, electricians who cross the Causeway. They are self-employed and they are offering such services in Singapore. Is MOM able to track these movements? What these people are doing, is it legal and acceptable in Singapore, because they do not pay foreign worker levy? Because of that, they are definitely able to offer lower fees compared to local tradesmen. Is MOM able to take action to address this?
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, in every country, we will always have in our economy certain segments that operate under the radar scope. If I knew exactly how many there are and where they are, the message is that it is illegal. Foreign workers, in order for them to work in Singapore, they must have a valid Work Pass. Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, for example, offenders could be fined up to $20,000 and subjected to imprisonment of up to two years. We can also take action to bar such illegal workers from entering and working in Singapore for up to two years.
We all are familiar with the sector, workers who sort out the plumbing works and so on. We do encourage the public to let us know when we do come across possible illegal workers. But I think it is also important for us to encourage the industry associations to play a role by raising awareness among consumers on the importance of turning to properly accredited and trained tradesmen, those who are here legally. The more we employ those who are here illegally, we also affect the livelihoods of Singaporeans who might be plying the trade in these sectors.
Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied): Mdm Speaker, there are a few supplementary questions. First, how does MOM carry out enforcement, especially against what Mr Baey Yam Keng referred to earlier, that is, informal work, and especially Malaysians who work in Singapore in an informal way? Secondly, is it the policy of MOM to allow Malaysians who cross the border to work freely on social visit passes without enforcement? One example is Malaysians who come across to Singapore to be karang guni (rag and bone) men. Or they may work as deliverymen. Are these jobs legal or illegal?
Next, there are Malaysians who hold construction workers’ permits, but are doing other jobs which are not related to construction. The question is, how seriously is the MOM monitoring such a situation? I have received feedback that MOM tends to keep a “closed eye” on these engagements.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Mdm Speaker, Mr Low is making a serious point. I would very much appreciate more information to be conveyed to us, such as informal feedback that has been provided to him. I will just reiterate the position. I would say it is not just Malaysians. There are other people who come into Singapore on social visit passes and we are aware that sometimes, some of them might engage in various types of work, whether legal work or otherwise. The point is that if they do not have a valid work pass, they cannot work in Singapore. Does it exist? Yes, it does.
We carry out random checks in various areas and we do pick up people who are working here illegally. It also very much depends on complaints, information and so on from the public, and we would then act accordingly and the relevant actions will take place.
With regards to the specific feedback, I do urge Mr Low to provide us with the alleged information about us closing one eye, and we would be quite happy to follow up.