What do the alternative parties propose to tackle Singapore’s migrant labour issue?

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Wednesday (26 August) announced that there will be a hike in the minimum salary criteria for Employment Passes (EPs) and S Passes amid weak labour market conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Individuals holding Employment Passes are now required to earn a minimum of S$3,900 a month, whereas those on S Passes must earn a minimum of S$2,400 a month. The bar will be higher for older, more experienced workers.

Making the announcement in her ministry’s addendum to President Halimah Yacob’s opening speech at the opening of the 14th Parliament, Mrs Teo said: “We will ensure that employers uphold both the letter and spirit of the Fair Consideration Framework. We will closely examine retrenchment exercises to ensure they are carried out fairly.”

Prior to the pandemic, the country had been preparing workers and employers for the future economy. However, these efforts must now “shift to even higher gear”, she said.

Highlighting all the different initiatives that the Government has put in place to help Singaporeans keep their jobs or find work, Ms Teo also noted the National Jobs Council’s effort to create 100,000 jobs and skills opportunities via the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.

Based on the announcement by Ms Teo, it seems that the ruling People’s Action Party’s approach assumes that increasing the minimum wage threshold for EP and S Pass holders would curb the hiring of migrant talents and will thus ensure more jobs for Singaporeans.

Now, the issue of jobs for Singaporeans and the country’s dependence on migrant labour was a hot button topic in the recent general election. While there is the recognition that the country needs some amount of migrant labour, critics — from academicians to the public — have argued that the country has been overdependent on migrant labour at a cost to Singaporeans who are being passed over by employers.

Naturally, many alternative parties highlighted the issue in their manifestos and presented several policy proposals on how to protect jobs for Singaporeans.

The Workers’ Party: Tighten EP requirements, set up assessment system, give incentives

The Workers’ Party (WP) manifesto “Make Your Vote Count” is premised on the vision of “A Singapore for all”.

On the issue of migrant labour specifically, the WP notes that the “over-dependence on low-cost foreign labour is a short-term crutch which does not benefit the economy, enterprises and workers in the long run.”

As such, the party proposes a tightening of approvals of Employment Passes by requiring companies to submit a details description of local recruitment efforts, the number of Singaporean applicants and why those who were considered were deemed unsuitable for the position. It added that MOM should also step up its detection efforts to sieve out false declarations.

The data gathered from this should them be used to better support employers in hiring Singaporeans and ultimately curbing access to EPs by employers who have a track record of hiring foreigners over Singaporeans without good reason.

The WP also proposes the introduction of an EP credentials assessment system which would subject EP and S Pass applicants with university degrees and diplomas to a mandatory educational credential assessment by a panel of government-appointed established, independent consultants.

Next, the party also proposes giving economic benefits to employers who have a record of hiring more Singaporeans than minimally required. These include tax benefits, a reduction in government charges or preferential access to state incentives.

Singapore Democratic Party: Implement assessment system, fair employment laws

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s manifesto includes a detailed plan on the party’s labour policy proposals aimed at ensuring Singaporeans’ wages are not unfairly suppressed and to ensure that Singaporeans are put first when it comes to hiring.

Among the SDP’s proposals include assessing migrant worker candidates on a rigorous merit-based framework to create a shortlist of applicants that employers can choose from, as well as implementing a requirement that non-Singaporeans be retrenched before locals should retrenchment be necessary should work performance and other factors remain equal.

The SDP also proposes several fair employment laws which would apply equally to all locals and migrant workers such as equal work for equal pay, a minimum hourly wage for all workers, and employee protections from unjust dismissals.

The party noted that fair employment laws “will make employment more just across the board, and remove the adverse incentives for businesses to favour migrant workers over Singaporeans”.

Beyond that, the SDP also proposes a TalentTrack Scheme to screen potential migrant professionals to ensure that they would contribute to the building of a high-quality workforce in Singapore.

The scheme would also factor in age, the number of dependents, qualifications, work experience and skillsets to assess potential migrant workers as a means of ensuring that talents entering Singapore meet the country’s economic needs.

This would involve rigorously verifying that applicants actually possess the skills they claim they have and requiring applicants to take on-site tests as well.

As for low-skilled workers, the SDP is for maintaining the quota under the Work Permit category. Again, the party stresses that in jobs where foreign workers are not the majority of the workforce, fair employment laws will protect the interests of Singaporeans.

Progress Singapore Party: Review FTAs, implement quota on EP, shift to high-wage model

While Progress Singapore Party (PSP) also addressed the issue of migrant labour in its manifesto, details on the matter are sparse. However, in essence, the party encourages prioritising Singaporeans for jobs, introducing a quota for employment pass and reducing the quota for work permits and S Pass.

It also proposes that free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India should be reviewed to ensure that it protects the interest of Singaporean workers.

On how to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign labour, the PSP suggests curbing the easy supply of foreign labour in order to push employers into investing in equipment or processes for high productivity.

The party also proposed moving the country’s economic model towards a higher-wage and higher value-add model.

People’s Voice Party: Reduce new EPs, freeze S Passes, #AbolishCECA

The issue of migrant labour is one of the People’s Voice Party’s manifesto’s central issues. The party has called for a significant reduction of the number of EPs issued and has proposed freezing the issuance of S Passes. It is also currently spearheading a non-partisan campaign called #AbolishCECA to further amplify the voices of Singaporeans on CECA “which the PAP government has refused to listen to”.

In a TOC interview by historian Thum Ping Tjin in July, Leong Sze Hian — financial advisor and People’s Voice Party Jalan Besar GRC candidate in the recent general election — similarly posited that firms lean towards hiring foreigners due to the absence of a CPF contribution requirement.

He argued that the CPF issue, however, is not the primary driving force behind companies opting to hire migrant staff over locals, but rather the low turnover rate.

“The foreign worker is typically on a two-year contract. You can torture the guy, break all the rules, [and] they cannot run to another employer,” said Mr Leong, adding that such workers are often bound by agent fees back home.

A local worker may leave or lodge a complaint to MOM more easily, he said.

Mr Leong said that government policies have contributed to the unequal playing field in the Singapore manpower landscape.

“I mean, look at your National Jobs Bank. There is no disclosure of how many of the jobs actually go to Singaporeans,” he said.

Red Dot United: Review FTAs, revaluate Fair Consideration Framework

Similar to PSP, Red Dot United (RDU) also proposes a review of the CECA to show how Singaporeans have benefitted from the agreement.

The party also suggests reevaluating the effectiveness of the Fair Consideration Framework in ensuring that good jobs go to Singaporeans as well as an assessment of the EP system itself to study the bearing on unfair playing field against Singaporeans.

Reform Party: Increase EP salary requirement, taxes on long-term EP holders

The Reform Party (RP) celebrated the MOM’s recent announcement as the party had, in its manifesto, proposed raising the minimum salary requirement for EPs to at least S$5,000 a month, with a cap on the total number of EPs given out.

Additionally, the party proposed additional taxes to be levied on long-term EP holders.

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