Tuesday, 3 April 2012

300,000 unskilled foreign workers will get to work longer here

Companies welcome extension as such staff can still contribute
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2012

FROM July 1, as many as 300,000 unskilled foreign workers who are already in Singapore will be able to work here for up to 10 years.

Currently, they can be employed for only up to six years.

'A significant proportion of these workers are employed in the construction and services sector and have worked in Singapore for more than four years,' a spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower told The Straits Times.

When it announced the extension of the maximum period of employment last Monday, it said the move would give employers greater flexibility in deploying foreign staff.

While the move allows companies to hold on to their unskilled foreign workers longer, the total number of foreigners they can hire is still tied to the number of locals. Hence, there will not be an influx of unskilled foreign workers.

The latest move benefits companies hiring unskilled work-permit holders from non-traditional sources - Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand - and China.

Last year, there were 1.05 million foreigners working here, making up close to a third of the total workforce.

Of these, about 870,000 were work-permit holders earning less than $2,000 a month.

General construction worker Raju Saravanakumar, 25, from India, is one of the workers who will get to stay longer.

He has been with local construction company Or Kim Peow Contractors for five years. He has basic skills certification from the Building and Construction Authority, and his work permit is due to expire next March.

Asked why he had stayed with the company for five years, he replied in halting English: 'Boss good to me.'

The bachelor supports his mother and two siblings in India, and wants to work in Singapore for as long as he can.

He hopes to follow in the footsteps of fellow construction worker Sunthornchai Arun, 31, who has been in Singapore for 10 years.

Five years ago, just before the six-year cap kicked in, the Thai worker was sent for specialised training in building manholes, which earned him a 'skilled worker' tag. He can now work for up to 18 years as a skilled worker.

Mr Peter Loh, 56, a senior superintendent, describes Mr Raju's attitude towards work as 'positive'.

'Even though he has only basic skills, he can still support other skilled workers in specialised areas of work. This gives us flexibility,' said Mr Loh.

'Attitude is more important than skills. If a worker is willing to work hard, we can always deploy him.'

The extension will give the company more time to train workers, said Mr Loh. In the past 10 years, he has sent back at least 10 good workers when they failed the skills tests that would have allowed them to continue to work here.

Three other employers interviewed agreed that unskilled workers can still contribute.

Mr Daniel Ang, one of the siblings who run local caterer Elsie's Kitchen, said such workers perform critical functions within the company. 'They also help out in the kitchen and handle deliveries,' he said. About a third of his 50-strong staff are foreign workers.

He cited the example of a delivery driver - a Chinese national in his 30s - who has been with the company for four years.

'He is hardworking, knows Singapore roads, plans his deliveries and climbs up flights of stairs without hesitation when there are no lifts,' he said. 'Some Singapore workers will call back to ask for more workers when they see stairs.'

Nominated Member of Parliament Teo Siong Seng feels the extension will especially benefit family-run small and medium-sized enterprises. SMEs can have difficulty replacing workers when they are sent back after adjusting to Singapore and overcoming the language barrier.

Said the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president: 'While we understand the need to curtail the growth of foreign worker (numbers), we have to recognise their contributions to businesses and the country.'

He urged employers to use the extension to raise productivity by sending workers for training.

Or Kim Peow's Mr Loh hopes foreign workers can get more help to pass the skills tests.

'They do very well in the practical part, but they are no good with theory, so they fail. Maybe the authority can help workers with the theory part.'

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