by Kok Ming Cheang
On 28 May, Straits Times (ST) published an article titled “Don’t cut foreign worker levels, say business groups.” In it, Industry leaders warn Singapore of higher costs, slower growth and impact on Singaporeans’ jobs.
This sounded so similar to the PAP government’s narratives that have been thrust onto us over the last three decades.
In a joint statement, the Singapore Indian, Malay and Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry said: “Given Singapore’s limited workforce, we would not be able to stay competitive in certain sectors … if not for migrant workers.”
Several trade associations like the Singapore’s Manufacturing Federation, the Association of Process Industries and the Singapore Marine Industries joined in the attack by rejecting suggestions that foreign worker numbers should be cut.
It is obvious that the Singapore business community and employers want the status quo to be maintained for their own interests. In first-world Singapore, such coordinated actions by a big segment of Singapore’s economy is uncommon, unless orchestrated.
Around the same time, an an article by ST on 31 May reported Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s explanation on “why Singapore cannot cut down on foreign workers the way other countries have”, and added “its small size, lack of natural resources means it cannot reduce reliance on such labour.”
We learnt all those stuff a long time ago.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat also issued a statement in similar vein: “Limit to reduce reliance on foreign workers.”
It seems evident that the 4G leaders are in support of the business community to resist any call by any alternative voice to reduce the foreign workforce in Singapore. Are they taking an indifferent approach to a deep-rooted labour issue which the PAP government is unwilling to solve? Which country in the world has such liberal employment policies like Singapore?
It’s time that the Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing enlighten us.
As of March, there were 720,800 work permit holders in Singapore, excluding foreign domestic workers. Of that number, 287,800 of them were in the construction industry. There were 194,900 S Pass holders, and 193,800 on employment passes.” The total foreign workforce (excluding foreign domestic workers) stood at 1,143,400 in March 2020.
In referring to migrant workers who are mostly doing blue collar work, we are also referring to foreign workers holding S Passes and employment passes, who are doing white collar jobs. These foreign workers are found across many sectors of the labour market, from health care and hospitality to F&B, retail, customer serving, banking and insurance, ICT and education. These are essentially professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMET) jobs which earn a monthly salary of $2,400 to $3,900. These are the jobs Singaporean PMETs would want too but lost out for various reasons.
With such a high foreign labour force in a small country like ours, this is certainly a cause for concern for Singaporeans who are unemployed, job hunting or in casual employment.
How much of a voice is NTUC for Singaporean workers in the face of widespread unemployment in Singapore during the Covid19 pandemic?
The collective demand put up by the several trade associations representing employers, reminded me of the trade unions of yesteryear, who fought hard for the betterment and welfare of their Singaporean members.
I have not read a response by NTUC to the business community on foreign workers except some nice words by the labour chief Ng Chee Meng: “Focus on longer term transformation.” To be fair, he said “NTUC will keep working with firms, government to preserve and create jobs.”
Over the past few months, he claimed that more than 10,000 workers who were displaced or at risk of losing their jobs have been matched with new roles by its Job Security Council. How many of these “new roles” are real jobs of value? Does it mean that the current huge foreign workforce with capability of taking PMET jobs away from Singaporeans is not his business?
The unemployment situation in Singapore is becoming a very serious livelihood issue.
“The number of unemployed residents in Singapore could potentially rise from around 73,000 last year to more than 100,000 this year,” according to DPM Heng.
A new $2b jobs and training package will create close to 100,000 opportunities for workers affected by the COVID-19 economic slowdown (40,000 jobs, 25,000 traineeships and 30,000 skills training). Many of these traineeships and skills training are targeted at new graduates and mid-level workers who have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, these aren’t real jobs that they need. It shows Singapore’s capacity to create real jobs is limited because our labour market is experiencing a new normal.
Yet neither the business leaders nor the 4G Leaders and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo herself are ready and willing to review the root cause for Singapore’s heavy reliance on foreign workers. By holding on to old and trite arguments which put Singaporean workers at a disadvantage in their own labour market is not the way forward in a post-COVID-19 Singapore when good jobs are becoming scarce.
It seems the PAP government has come to the end of the road on employment issues—after failing miserably in handling the foreign workers infections in dormitories—with the appointment of Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, to chair the new National Jobs Council (NJC). Though a seasoned political warrior, I believe nothing bold and innovative will come out of the NJC as it is staffed by the same team of PAP politicians, NTUC and business leaders.
To some extent, the influx of foreign PMETs from India, with the CECA—Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, a free trade agreement between India and Singaporev—worsen the problem of Singaporean PMETs in the local market.
Deep in his heart, I think SM Tharman knew CECA was wrong and detrimental to Singaporean workers’ interest. When he was in New Delhi in 2017 to review the CECA, he was unable to seek a change to the employment clause. He said at a Forum: “Wrong to have total free flow of people. It’s not just wrong politics but wrong economics.”
If he cannot right this wrong, I do not expect him to be able to bring the Singaporean workforce through the new normal of Singapore labour market.
Don’t expect any change in the labour policies or economic model that is heavily dependent on a foreign workforce under the same PAP politicians. They want to retain the status quo as much as the business community.
In the new normal of post-COVID-19 labour market, Singaporean workers must not only learn new skills but be willing to fight and regain those jobs that they have lost to foreign workers, in all sectors of the economy.
Singaporean workers need a strong voice in the new normal of post-COVID-19 labour market. This is putting people first.
This is the opinion of a Pioneer Citizen.