Friday 14 September 2012

Parliament Highlights - 11 Sep 2012

Parliament passes amendments to Employment of Foreign Manpower Act
By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 11 Sep 2012

Parliament on Tuesday passed amendments to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act aimed at ensuring the integrity of the work pass framework.

The amended law will come into force by the end of this year.

The changes also aim to ensure Singaporeans remain at the core of the workforce.

Mr Tan said Singapore employers are by and large responsible but there are some who try to profit by circumventing the work pass framework and Singaporeans ultimately suffer when employers fail to pay the true costs of hiring foreign workers.

To overcome that, the law has been tightened with a penalty regime to enforce administrative infringements.

Next, to enhance deterrence, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) will introduce new contraventions and increased penalties which commensurate with potential profits gained from abusing the system.

Sixteen MPs rose to support the changes lauding the move would ensure Singaporeans stay at the core of the workforce.

But many also noted that enforcement must not be the only approach.

They offered suggestions as to what more the government can do, going forward.

MP for Hougang SMC Png Eng Huat called MOM to "look into promoting responsible employment, especially for employers of low-wage migrant workers."

He said: "While enforcement has a role to play, a mindset change will have a bigger impact on our society as a whole. Singapore is a first-world country and we should reflect that in the way we treat migrant workers. We have heard horror stories of how these migrant workers are treated and sometimes abandoned the moment injuries befall them. It is very sad to note that some of these workers already living in poverty back home and going into debt in order to make a trip here, will end up worse than before because of some unscrupulous agents and errant employers.

"Although MOM has no shortage of legislation to act against errant employers to begin with, many Singaporeans, Non-Governmental Organisations, Voluntary Welfare Organisations will welcome the amendments to strengthen enforcement capabilities and address the abuses and problems faced by migrant workers."

Others urged MOM to implement the rules judiciously.

MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Zainudin Nordin, said: "As we take errant employers to task, we also have to ask ourselves how many employers had to resort to illegal ways because their legitimate application for foreign workers was turned down.

"The authorities should carefully look into the individual circumstances of each case because not every employer who breaks the law is an evil opportunist who looking at squeezing the last buck from helpless workers."

MP for West Coast GRC Foo Mee Har asked if there is a role for whistle-blowers.

"If whistle-blowers can be assured that MOM will assist them in finding another job in Singapore, it would help remove the fear amongst these vulnerable workers of being punished when they help to bring errant employers to book," asked Ms Foo.

Mr Tan replied: "Whistle blowing will play an important part in uncovering the cases and this is certainly an area that we are working out details on."

MP for Nee Soon GRC Patrick Tay also urged MOM to take a stricter view and set a quota for the number of labour supply agencies for each economic sector.

Mr Tay said: "There should be regular audits carried out on their employment practices. The owners of the employment agencies should also meet essential requirements such as a sound background, appropriate qualifications, training and experience. The quality of hiring and adherence to Work Pass framework can then be better ensured."

MPs also raised concerns over the differing penalties for employees and employers over the same crime.

Nominated MP Tan Su Shan asked: "Incidents of forgery of certificates or falsification of documents will mean workers are penalised with up to 24 months in jail, or 12 months for employers. Can we justify workers having such heavier penalties for the same crime?"

MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC Hri Kumar Nair said the disparity in sentencing appears anomalous.

Mr Nair also sought clarification on how the amendments would apply in relation to associates of employers who have been debarred from hiring foreign workers.

He said: "There is a broad range of people who are defined as associates, and may catch people with little connection to the debarred person. Under what circumstances will an associate be debarred in absence of any evidence that he's working in concert with or at the direction of the debarred person, in relation to the employment of foreign workers?"

Summing up the three-hour long debate, Mr Tan emphasised the target of the changes - irresponsible employers and those abusing the system.

He said: "The majority of employers can look forward to this Act in terms of protecting them and making sure that the playing field is level for all. These amendments should be seen in the context of all our efforts to build a really big-hearted society which shows graciousness and respect for fellow human beings whether local or foreigners."

Mr Tan said the amendments fill in gaps that may have existed in the past.

He said the new regime allows swifter enforcement and the financial penalties will be high enough to make such employers give up their illegal profits and so, will act as a deterrent.

He also revealed that MOM investigated some 300 cases of submission of forged documents for foreign workers last year.

In addition, he assured that with the changes, small and medium enterprises will not find it more challenging to operate.

Mr Tan said: "I would like to emphasise that none, and I repeat, none of the measures in this bill are aimed at increasing the duties of honest employers, which make up the bulk of all employers. In fact, our measures are aimed at helping to make sure that we level the playing field for law-abiding employers by penalising unscrupulous competitors who undercut costs by bypassing the Work Pass framework."

No cut to absolute number of work permits issued
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2012

WHILE the Government is slowing foreign worker growth, it has not cut the absolute number of work permits, said Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin.

He was responding to Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng, president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Many chamber members, he said, had "a common comment: that the old work permit... doesn't get renewed, and the new one doesn't get approved".

This gave the impression on the ground that work permit numbers had fallen, said Mr Teo.

That may seem the case to individual companies, said Mr Tan, but overall labour demand is still growing, and more companies are competing for workers.

So when it comes to work permit renewals or applications, "some companies may not get them, other companies do", he added. "Even as we are calibrating downwards, it is not that the growth (of work permit holders) has become negative."

Asked how many new work permits and S Passes were issued in the last six months, and the net increase or decrease, Mr Tan said the figures will be released early next year.

As of last year, there were 908,000 work permit holders here, including foreign maids, 176,000 Employment Pass holders and 113,000 S Pass holders.

Nominated MP Mary Liew suggested that new job vacancies be made known to unions before the Employment Passes are approved, so that they can search for Singaporean workers.

Mr Tan said the Government is open to the idea, but it could be done without the process being made a formal one.

As for giving companies extra time to find Singaporeans to replace existing foreign employees - which Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) asked for - this can be done on a case-by-case basis, he said.

But not every company's requests can be met, for that might jeopardise the entire framework, he added.

Productivity rates 'a matter of concern'
The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

PRODUCTIVITY growth in Singapore this year is not expected to be "very positive", warned Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, as employment has grown much faster than gross domestic product.

He was responding to Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC MP Zainudin Nordin's question on the progress of Singapore's productivity drive, but stressed that it would keep to its "stretch targets".

Last year, labour productivity here grew by an average of 1 per cent over the year, but shrunk by 0.5 per cent in the last quarter. In the first three months of this year, it continued the downward trend, shrinking by 2.2 per cent.

Labour productivity is measured by dividing GDP by the total number of workers.

Although the measurement was sensitive to economic cycles and could swing substantially over the short term, Mr Tan said that "the low productivity growth rates over the past 11/2 years is a matter of concern".

Since 2010, Singapore has set itself an annual productivity growth target of 2 to 3 per cent.

"These are stretch targets, but they are necessary," said Mr Tan as he urged firms to rely less on manpower, and workers to upgrade their skills to take on higher value-added jobs.

The ministry is expected to release its second-quarter labour market report tomorrow.

- Written Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question on the Impact of Increased Varsity Places on Job Market, Value of Singapore Degrees and Median Salaries

More HDB flats on the way, but can road network cope?
By Daryl Chin, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2012

THE Housing Board is expected to complete building five Build-to-Order (BTO) housing projects in Yishun by 2014, but the road network to support the additional residents will be ready only a year later.

This time gap worries Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), who foresees it causing massive jams along Lentor Avenue.

She was not the only MP expressing concern yesterday over the potential problems arising from the ramp-up in the building of BTO flats.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) wondered whether public transport infrastructure and facilities such as hawker centres will be ready to cope with the population explosion in Bukit Panjang, where eight housing projects are in the pipeline.

"Is it reasonable to build eight BTOs at about the same time, all at one go in a mature estate?"

Replying, Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan said town planners would typically take into account the number of people and vehicles when drawing up plans, and that the HDB keeps a close eye on what is happening on the ground.

He added that an inter-agency meeting can be called to resolve local bottlenecks, should they arise.

Ms Lee asked how often such meetings were held, and added: "Certainly, I don't agree that there is good coordination."

Mr Lee said lessons have been learnt from the recent rise in public housing supply: 25,000 new flats are being offered this year, with another 20,000 next year.

"Some of the major infrastructure such as vehicular network and rail access will take much longer (to be completed) than the construction of HDB flat precincts. So I think coordination for short-term construction projects and longer-term planning are ongoing and we would intensify them as and when necessary."

He also said talks are ongoing with various ministries to minimise inconveniences to Yishun residents.

But some Bukit Panjang residents told The Straits Times that more could be be done.

Mr Tommy Lin, assistant director of NTUC's unit for casual and contract workers, called for a pre-emptive approach.

"Already, we are receiving many complaints from residents here. The situation will be much worse once the BTOs are built," said the 37-year-old. He is chairman of the Zhenghua Transport Task Force, a volunteer group that handles problems arising from public and private transport.

Help for those aiding parents and children
By Leslie Kay Lim, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2012

THE increasing number of middle-aged Singaporeans sandwiched between supporting their elderly parents and adult children is one area of concern for the upcoming Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

It may consider new help schemes for this group in their 50s and 60s who are facing or have faced retirement, said Mr Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

Mr Chan, who is Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, will head the new ministry when it opens its doors on Nov 1.

The needs of this sandwiched group are among the priorities of his new ministry, he said in his reply to Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC).

Plugging such "potential gaps in our social safety nets" is part and parcel of its focus on strengthening families, one of the three key areas of attention.

The other two are improving social services for the elderly, disabled and caregivers, and enhancing social safety nets for the low-income group.

In offering social safety nets, the new ministry wants to go beyond financial aid and consider assistance as well in housing, education and employment.

Mr Chan also gave an update on the plans for integrated day facilities (IDFs) and senior activity centres (SACs). IDFs are one-stop centres that will provide basic day care as well as specialised services, such as rehabilitation and dementia programmes.

Three IDFs - in Tampines, Toa Payoh and Serangoon - will be ready next year while the location of the remaining 37 will be announced in the next two to three months. These will be completed by 2016.

For senior activity centres, a "hub and spoke" concept will be introduced, where one anchor SAC will support clusters of SACs to expand their reach. Anchor SACs will monitor the vulnerable elderly through home visits, case management and counselling.

The first six centres will open by December. By 2016, there will be 16 anchor SACs altogether supporting about 39,000 elderly folk.

Police may consider on-site measures for outdoor rallies
By S. Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 11 Sep 2012

Singapore Police Force will continue to refine its rules, regulations and penalties to ensure that election candidates, agents and permit holders take the permit conditions seriously and adhere strictly to all permit conditions for outdoor rallies.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said for parties and candidates who persist in flouting the permit conditions despite numerous reminders, the Police will consider requiring the permit holder to put in place on-site measures to ensure election meetings end on time.

He said one such possibility is to have power supply controlled by an automatic timer.

Police will also consider requiring parties or candidates to provide a deposit which could be forfeited should any breach of permit conditions occur.

Mr Masagos said between 2001 and 2012, there were 31 breaches of the rules and regulations governing outdoor rallies by contesting parties during the various elections.

The breaches involved the failure to comply with the rally permit conditions.

Some examples of breaches include not meeting the specifications of barricades, not providing sufficient lighting at rally sites, poor crowd management and exceeding the ending time of the rally.

Mr Masagos said permit holders were issued police warnings for these breaches.

S$5.1m disbursed to support integration initiatives
Channel NewsAsia, 11 Sep 2012

The government has disbursed S$5.1 million so far under the Community Integration Fund to support ground-up integration initiatives.

Acting Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister Chan Chun Sing gave the update in a written reply to Parliament.

He said since the National Integration Council was launched in 2009, it has engaged more than 150 organisations and supported some 220 projects.

Another S$3.1 million has also been committed to ongoing and upcoming projects.

Mr Chan said these efforts have brought the people, private and public sectors together to foster integration across all levels of society.

Projects under the Community Integration Fund are typically organised by students, companies, community and cultural groups.

Mr Chan said they have helped immigrants here better adapt to their new environments and provided platforms for locals and newcomers to interact.

On how the success of the projects are measured, Mr Chan said all programmes have different KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), depending on the desired outcomes.

These may include measurements tied to the participation rate, profile of participants and a project's longer-term sustainability.

These KPIs, said Mr Chan, will be monitored continuously.

He added the National Integration Council regularly reviews how the fund can be enhanced to better achieve integration outcomes.

Being gracious - something in it for everyone
By Jeremy Au Yong, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2012

IF THE connection between the shortage of cleaners and a gracious society was not clear before, Parliament's proceedings yesterday made sure there was little room left for doubt.

It was a day when the topic of foreign workers took centre stage, though this was a debate on foreigners with a difference.

In recent weeks, the discussion on the influx of foreign workers had morphed into a lament on how the shortage of low-wage foreign workers is affecting lives here. Yesterday, that wistfulness merged with the debate over the way Singapore treats foreigners.

The point some ministers and MPs seemed to be making was that having a more gracious society would ease some of our foreign worker-related anxieties - whether it is about not being able to hire enough workers to clean a hawker centre or needing stiffer penalties for employers who exploit their foreign workers.

The subject emerged early on during question time, when Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan was answering a question about how the Government was dealing with a shortage of cleaners.

He announced that the Government would take another stab at trying to get Singaporeans to return their trays at food centres later this year. But he noted that since this meant having to install places to return trays in more than 100 hawker centres, it was not a change that would happen overnight.

More important, he added, was changing social norms.

Said Dr Balakrishnan: "Singapore may be a clean place, but it's often due to the hard work of the cleaners rather than the consideration and behaviour of us Singaporeans.

"And really we need better role models. And I can think of countries like Japan, Korea, and, I've heard nowadays, even Taiwan is cleaner, not because they have more cleaners but because people are more considerate and more gracious."

It was a sentiment that was repeated later in the day during the debate on legislation to clamp down on employers who try to get around foreign labour laws.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin set the tone during the opening speech of the debate, when he framed the laws not just as a way to better regulate the intake of foreign workers, but also as a signal of the kind of society Singapore aspires to be.

He said: "This is in keeping with our values as a society, that we believe all our workers should be treated fairly, decently and with respect regardless of their nationality.

"...this Bill is about ensuring that Singaporeans remain at the core of our workforce. And this Bill is about the kind of people and society we want to be."

MPs David Ong (Jurong GRC) and Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) were just two of a handful of people who voiced similar opinions.

Mr Ong put it this way: "As we pride ourselves for being a First World economy, we must never become Third World employers, where the rights of our local and foreign workforce are compromised."

Mr de Souza, meanwhile, talked about how the problem of errant employers cannot be one that is simply solved by laws.

"I believe that it is time for Singapore to move beyond mere legal regulation and towards cultivating a culture of respect for our foreign worker population, be they construction workers or domestic helpers in our homes," he said.

Singapore's graciousness - or lack of it - has been at the heart of many a debate since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised the issue at his National Day Rally speech last month.

Yesterday in Parliament, that discussion moved further along.

No longer was graciousness just a matter about feel-good goals like values and having a society we are proud to be a part of.

Arguments made in the House - about how we can do with fewer cleaners and how employers won't need to be regulated as much - make clear that there is something tangible in it for everyone if we can become a gracious society.

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