Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused countless damaging effects in Singapore, especially on the economy and job market. In recent months, this has led to intense discussion on foreign labour in the country as many locals voice their displeasure over competing with foreigners for jobs.

To make it worse, Singapore’s unemployment rate has recorded the highest level in the last 10 years.

Based on a data by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), unemployment soared from 2.4 per cent in the first quarter of the year to 2.9 per cent in the second quarter. A total of 70,500 residents were registered as unemployed, out of which 79,600 of them were Singaporean citizens.

In fact, companies like Singapore Airlines and GoBear have retrenched staff to cut costs and keep their business going.

Earlier this month, Singapore’s national carrier announced that about 2,400 employees would be affected by job cuts, while another 1,900 positions are being removed by measures like recruitment freeze and early retirement schemes.

Retrenchment measures like this means that there is currently lack of jobs in the workforce.

While things have been looking bad for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs), foreign talents in the country are also feeling the impact of the pandemic.

Recently, MOM has increased the minimum salaries for hiring foreigners on work passes.  

As of now, individuals holding Employment Passes (EP) have 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 salary requirement for older and more experienced workers are higher.

However, from 1 September, the baseline salary for EP holders have been raised to S$4,500, while the qualifying salary for new S Pass holders will be increased to S$2,500 from 1 October.

This change is obviously a big problem for international fresh graduates in Singapore as it gets a lot harder for them to secure a job. This means that the chances of them to break their tuition grant bond is a lot higher.

For those who are not aware, it is compulsory for foreign students and permanent residents in the country who accepts a Tuition Grant from the Ministry of Education (MOE) will have to serve three years as a full-time staff at a Singaporean company upon graduation.

This is part of the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS) which was introduced by the Government in 1980 to help subsidise tertiary education fee for students enrolled in full-time diploma or undergraduate courses.

This scheme is different from scholarships as it does not guarantee a job for students in the civil service upon graduation. The students are required to look for a job on their own, and have to do it within a year.

Given that it’s extremely tough even for local students to get employed in this bleak economy and worsening job market, it makes it a lot harder for international students.

If these graduates fail to secure an employment on their own, they are liable to pay liquidated damages that include 10 per cent annual interest, compounded at the end of each academic year.

The amount could range from S$80,000 to more than S$100,000, an article by The Sunday Times stated.

What happens if graduates cannot get a job after repeated attempts?

Now the question boils down to what happens to these international students who fail to secure employment on their own after repeated attempts.

MOE recently pointed out that it is “actively monitoring” the current situation faced by foreign students who are finding it hard to get hired by local companies after graduating from universities in Singapore.

“The MOE is cognisant that international students have to fulfil their tuition grant obligations, and we work with the institutes of higher learning and other public agencies to help facilitate their application for the necessary work pass arrangements while keeping to the Fair Consideration Framework,” said a spokesman to The Straits Times (ST).

The Ministry added that these students should ask for assistance from their universities in case they are having trouble fulfilling their bond requirements.

However, it declined to reveal how many foreign students are under the scheme right now and what will happen to those who cannot find jobs after multiple attempts.

As part of a reply to a parliamentary question in March 2016 on what action will be taken against international student who knowingly opt to not fulfil their grant obligations, the then Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said: “Where liquidated damages cannot be recovered, defaulters face serious adverse consequences if they subsequently apply to work or reside in Singapore.”

The consequences include being barred from getting a work pass or long-term visit pass to Singapore.

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