Thursday, 14 February 2013

The foreign worker dilemma

Foreign labour curbs may hurt Singaporean workers
THERE has been a lot of discussion on the impact that hiring foreign workers has on the local workforce.

Many feel that making it too easy to bring in foreign labour will compromise the job prospects of Singaporeans.

To a certain extent, this may be true, but it is not always the case.

I work for an American company that is very specialised in the building and construction industry. I am in charge of the engineering and design department, which I started 10 years ago for this company in Singapore.

I started out with two Singaporeans and two permanent residents (PRs). Now, I have a team of 16 engineers and designers, half of whom are Singaporeans and PRs.

Over the past 10 years, I have been trying to employ only Singaporeans, as hiring foreigners is difficult and involves a long application process that may take months at the very least.

But there are very few Singaporeans who are trained in this line of work, which is not only very specialised but also requires long and tedious dedication.

Most Singaporeans do not seem to be interested in this kind of work - even when we are willing to pay them more than what we pay foreigners.

Because of this, I had no choice but to bring in qualified people from countries around the region like the Philippines, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Lately, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been rejecting the employment pass and work permit re-applications of our existing foreign workers.

This is making it untenable for businesses like ours to continue in a market where we are unable to find the right manpower. Ultimately, we would have to cease operations and move to another more business-friendly location.

What this means is that the Singaporeans who make up half of my department will lose their jobs. This also means that a company that is top in this particular industry will be forced out of Singapore, and take along with it the high-value technology that is essential in Singapore's quest for modernisation.

The country will lose out and its regional neighbours will benefit.

The MOM should not react in a knee-jerk manner to discontent on the ground. It should look closely at the points brought up by business leaders in the various fields.

In the quest to please the local workforce, we could be unwittingly driving away top-quality foreign enterprises and businesses, as well as hurting Singaporeans whose jobs we are trying to protect.
Chew Cheng Lok
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

WP needs to decide on its stand - and stick to it
THE Population White Paper raises serious issues about our future and therefore warrants committed and honest debate in Parliament.

Last week's discussions were robust and passionate, drawing the best from our MPs.

However, I am concerned about some apparent contradictions voiced by the Workers' Party (WP) on the issue of foreign workers.

During the Budget debate in Parliament last year, WP chief Low Thia Khiang criticised government measures to tighten the foreign worker inflow.

He argued that this was done too quickly and should happen at a slower and more gradual pace.

As an operator of a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), I saw merit in his argument.

Moreover, since foreign workers are crucial to our companies, Mr Low expressed concern that many SMEs would have to shut down.

To my dismay and shock, the WP seems to have changed its stance on foreign workers this year.

It now advocates a freeze on foreign worker numbers in Singapore ("MPs spar over WP plan to grow local workforce, cap foreign labour"; Feb 6).

The foreign worker issue is undoubtedly a serious one as it directly affects our economy and the livelihoods of many Singaporeans, many of whom are employed by SMEs.

The WP needs to decide on its stand and stick to it.

Singaporeans like me need to know what its position is.
Patrick Liew Siow Gian
ST Forum, 14 Feb 2013

WP's position on foreign workers has been consistent
MR PATRICK Liew Siow Gian ("WP needs to decide on its stand - and stick to it"; Thursday) wrote that during the Budget debate last year, Workers' Party (WP) secretary-general Low Thia Khiang had criticised government measures to tighten the foreign worker inflow and argued that this was done too quickly, yet the WP now advocates a freeze on foreign worker numbers.

Mr Liew has read the above out of context. What Mr Low highlighted during the Budget debate last year concerned the allocation of foreign manpower for specific industries, not the overall foreign worker growth rate.

The statements described by Mr Liew were made during an exchange between Mr Low and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on the issue of whether the dependency ratio ceiling for foreign workers could be managed by specific industries instead of by broad industry clusters.

It was not a debate on the growth rate of foreign workers or the input of foreign workers to the workforce.

In fact, Mr Low made clear his stand on foreign workers in his speech in Parliament during the same Budget debate last year.

He said: "I agree we should not be over-reliant on foreign workers; we should not allow foreign workers to take away Singaporeans' rice bowls. This is not protectionism, but a responsibility of the Government to the people. However, we also know that we have limited population, (and) we need foreign workers to fill up the gap in our domestic labour market."

This is consistent with the WP's position taken during the Population White Paper debate, in which we called for the overall number of foreign workers to be capped if we can achieve a 1 per cent annual growth rate in the local workforce. Based on June 2012 data, there were already 1.5 million non-residents in Singapore, of which 1.2 million were foreign workers.

The WP is not calling for zero foreign workers in Singapore, but zero growth in foreign workers if we can increase the resident labour force participation rate and rely on the expected natural increase in the number of working-age residents (due to more residents entering the workforce than retiring) over the next few years.

The WP has raised concerns and suggestions at both the macro and micro levels of foreign labour policies. Put together, they do not reflect an inconsistency or contradiction in the WP's stand.
Gerald Giam
Chair, Media Team
The Workers' Party
ST Forum, 16 Feb 2013

Population growth's relevance to a livelihood
I AM glad that Parliament has endorsed the Population White Paper.

It need not have been controversial. Singapore exists and prospered because of its conducive business environment and foreign direct investments. Such a focus naturally leads to immigration.

It is not about how many foreign talents or foreign workers there are but how they are processed and managed. Population growth is synonymous with Singapore's economy.

There have been calls to reduce the growth of foreign workers and for Singaporeans to take it easy. Such calls are unrealistic, callous and risky. Without growth, businesses would not invest here.

I have been in sales for 20 years and none of my bosses reduced my growth targets, not unless they wanted the company to fold.

No shareholders, customers or suppliers will trust a non-growing company.

The same applies for Singapore Inc. The Ministry of Manpower has reduced the foreign worker inflow so much that the business community is crying foul. It is senseless and illogical to turn businesses away.

There are some who feel negatively about the different accents in crowded malls and trains. But this is a happy problem.

Singapore does not have severe unemployment, a flight of companies or real tensions.

The fear, uncertainty and doubt appear to be based on emotions rather than hard problems. After all, there has never been a time when Singapore had no or few foreigners. Singaporeans are descendants of foreigners.

I was married in 1997 and within three years, my household included two children and two aged parents. I am lucky to have a positive-minded wife, and I also feel blessed that there is a positive stream of foreign direct investments into Singapore.

I was employed by a foreign talent who gave me the opportunities to grow in my career. With high expenses, I simply cannot fail. This pushed me to work harder, and opened my mind to new cultures and social skills.

There were bumps along the way but that is life.

Are people trying to create a different Singapore, one that is about an easy life?

To opposing voices, please spare a thought for others. Ultimately, many businesses here are fuelled by foreign direct investments. Their success is Singapore's success, and vice versa.

I am glad the ministers have promised to look after Singapore's interest. More must be done on side issues such as getting permanent residents to do national service as required.

Singapore's economic and political interests, and national integrity must not be compromised. When Singaporeans feel proud, secure and protected, population growth will become a non-issue.
Fred Yap Hoe Kiat
ST Forum, 19 Feb 2013

The foreign worker dilemma
THE foreign worker issue presents a dilemma for the Government.

If we let in too many foreign workers, it hurts the job prospects of Singaporeans; if we let in too few, multinational corporations (MNCs) will leave and Singaporeans will lose their jobs.

Somehow, the Government has to ensure that the jobs created for Singaporeans are more than the jobs lost. For this to work, Singaporeans have to be realistic.

The Government says it wants to increase professional, manager, executive and technician jobs for Singaporeans.

Many of these jobs are in MNCs, which are here not because they love our country, but because they see it as a place where they can set up shop and make what they consider to be a reasonable profit.

The moment they do not see this any more, they will pack up and leave.

There are now many other countries where they can start operations, unlike 10 to 20 years ago. The reality is that many countries have caught up with Singapore in quite a number of areas.

The MNCs now have operations in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

When the MNCs go, many small and medium-sized enterprises will also be affected because they are sub-contractors of the MNCs.

Singaporean workers should no longer remain the silent majority; they should start voicing their concerns as their future is at stake.

Opposition parties should share with Singaporeans how they would solve this dilemma if they were the government. They should not just question what the Government intends to do.
Goh Khee Kuan
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

Stuck in vicious circle of rising wages and costs?
OUR young have been constantly reminded by their parents that they should aspire to be doctors, lawyers and other professionals, working in air-conditioned offices.

They can see for themselves that most construction workers and cleaners are foreigners. They are taught to leave the "dirty work" to foreign workers.

If they continue to have such a mindset, they will not be able to sustain the needs of the economy.

I belong to Generation X and am a mother of three. I committed the same mistake, impressing on my children the need to become well-paid professionals.

The Government is right to say that we need foreigners to meet the needs of our growing economy. The Workers' Party (WP) is also right to say that we need to get housewives and retirees back into the workforce.

My husband is an employer in a small and medium-sized enterprise. He has tried to employ housewives and retirees, but it is challenging as they do not mind not working if they cannot fit into the new work environment.

The Government has heeded the public outcry over foreign labour and increased the levies on foreign workers. The SMEs suffered as a result.

The WP hears the outcry too and encourages employers to increase the salaries of Singaporeans and not look to foreigners. But again, the SMEs will suffer as a result of the increased costs.

If the SMEs pass on the higher operating costs to consumers, these people will in turn seek more wages from their employers to keep up with the rising cost of living.

If the SMEs cannot cope with rising costs, they will have to close down and people will lose their jobs.

Are we stuck in a vicious circle of rising wages, costs and job losses?
Teo Mei Ling (Ms)
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

PMET job not the only path to success
THE debate on the Population White Paper has largely revolved around overcrowding, infrastructure and the influx of foreigners. I am troubled by the projection that two-thirds of citizens will be professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) by 2030, and that we will increase our reliance on foreign workers to take up lower-skilled jobs.

Many Singaporeans think that some types of work are beneath them. The pay in these jobs is so low that it is difficult for workers to eke out a decent livelihood. Yet many of these jobs are in essential services like health care, construction and cleaning.

Depending on foreign workers to fill these roles can only be a temporary solution that is not sustainable.

The strong Singaporean core we are building must be self-reliant. Singaporeans must be able to make a decent living from work that matches their aptitude and ability. All work done must be valued fairly, and this must be reflected not only in wages, but also in the removal of the perceived social stigma.

Costs will go up, but the result is a more resilient Singaporean core that is rooted in reality.

The Government must help all Singaporeans achieve their dreams and aspirations, and understand that a PMET job is not the only way to get there.

In many cases, it is not even the best way.

The assertion that foreign workers serve as a buffer for economic uncertainty is also flawed. In an economic downturn, many PMET jobs in banking, finance and manufacturing are at greater risk than those in essential services like health care and cleaning.

If these jobs continue to be shunned by residents, and if remuneration continues to be artificially suppressed by a reliance on cheap foreign labour, Singapore may find itself in an unsustainable situation.

Weaning ourselves off cheap foreign labour will not be a quick and easy process, but it is a necessary step towards a sustainable population and dynamic Singapore.
Aaron Lee Kwang Yang
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

Businesses addicted to quick-fix drug of foreign labour
I CANNOT agree more with MP Inderjit Singh, whose call to take a break from the relentless drive for growth and fix problems first was echoed by some of his party members ("Delay population growth for 5 years: MP"; last Wednesday).

Bear in mind that corporate managers do not make the rules. The Government makes the rules and the managers operate within them to produce the best outcomes for their own performance appraisals and resultant bonuses.

For example, it takes at least two years to turn an apprentice into a competent technician. Many local apprentices are school dropouts. They are accepted for training by big corporations at the age of 16. Just when they become productive, they get called up for national service. After that, some may not return to the employers who invested in their training.

However, so-called engineers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines may have qualifications not recognised in Singapore. But they speak English, comprehend technical manuals and are more than capable of understanding and doing the jobs of skilled technicians. And they work for the same salaries as what technicians get.

At higher grades, they could even be hired more competitively, since they neither suffer Central Provident Fund deductions nor receive CPF contributions.

If the employment of these foreigners were banned, local managers would have no choice but to train and upgrade the skills of our own citizens.

But this takes time. Managers are assessed every year. Their bonuses and promotions depend on the productivity and profitability of their divisions for that year. Why should they handicap themselves with local trainees who do not produce immediate results, when they can get foreigners who hit the ground running?

The use of foreign workers is a quick-fix drug to which Singapore businesses have become addicted. When threatened with withdrawal, businessmen complain and say that they have to close down. There is no doubt that the restructuring of various businesses will be as painful. As in the case of curing drug addicts, some may not survive.

But unless the Government lives up to its constant claims of being able to make hard decisions, and forces Singapore businesses to stand principally on the strengths of its native sons, the nation we grew up to know may not survive.
Lee Chiu San
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

Singapore needs to boost productivity, not population
I QUESTION the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises' call for a higher inflow of low-end foreign workers ("Call to relook curbs on foreign worker inflow"; Feb 4).

Every morning, five foreign workers take approximately two hours to sweep the HDB carpark near my house. Why is there a need for so many foreign workers to do a job that one person can do?

This is not an exceptional case.

In the United States, two staff members at a Starbucks outlet can take customers' orders faster than three to five of their counterparts in Singapore.

Formal studies are even more damning: Singapore's construction industry productivity has been estimated to be half that of Australia's and one-third that of Japan's ("What ails Singapore's building industry?"; March 13, 2010). And Singapore's construction productivity rose an anaemic 0.7 per cent annually from 2000 to 2010.

Since Singapore, Australia and Japan all have access to the same technology, the difference in productivity levels appears to be a case of Singapore's construction sector utilising its labour and capital inputs in an inefficient manner.

At five-star hotels here, foreign wait staff tell me and visiting foreign colleagues that they do not serve Irish coffee, screwdrivers or pina coladas. We had to hunt for a Singaporean bartender to get a properly mixed drink.

At a wedding hosted at a five-star hotel, foreign wait staff poured white wine into guests' glasses that still had red wine in them.

I do not recall such incidents happening when these same hotels employed Singaporean wait staff.

There are many cases where replacing Singaporean workers with foreign staff made both the enterprise, and Singapore itself, less economically efficient. Businesses appear to be so fixated on low wages that many hire foreign staff who are less competent than locals.

Clearly, this 19th century practice of importing cheap, inefficient labour is not working. Singapore needs to boost its productivity, not its population.
Eric J. Brooks
ST Forum, 13 Feb 2013

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