Wednesday, 20 March 2013

SMEs set aside beef over worker restrictions

They may have accepted curbs as focus at forum shifts to staying afloat
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 19 Mar 2013

BUSINESS owners here seem to be coming to grips with the fact that stricter foreign worker policies are here to stay - and they are now looking for help they can get from the Government.

That was the impression left at the latest post-Budget convention held yesterday.

None of the businessmen who spoke up during the convention, organised by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME), groused about their struggles to find enough workers.

This was in contrast to some previous forums or dialogue sessions with government officials.

Instead, they were focused on learning how they can make full use of existing schemes and grants so that they can improve productivity and stay afloat.

"I think people are a little bit tired now of talking about manpower, they're not bringing up issues about manpower now as they know it's going to fall on deaf ears," said Mr Thomas Fernandez, ASME's vice-president of communications, at a press conference held at the end of the convention.

Overall, he added, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) seemed worried about their survival and wanted to tap available government aid. "They are going to bite the bullet and have to look for ways to stay fit and they know that they have no choice - if they can't shape up, they'll have to ship out, reduce or even go out of business."

ASME council member and the chief executive of real estate consultancy GSK Global, Mr Eric Tan, added: "Today they wanted to learn whether they could get money and how, and how to survive."

The first half of the convention, attended by more than 400 businessmen from local SMEs, featured presentations and question-and-answer sessions with the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Manpower, Spring Singapore and the Workforce Development Agency. The second half featured presentations by private-sector experts on the global economic outlook, tax issues and business relocation to Iskandar Malaysia.

Mr Fernandez, also chief executive of pest management firm PestBusters, said many questions raised at the convention centred on two schemes - Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) and the Wage Credit Scheme.

With PIC, many business owners wanted to know what kind of activities would qualify and how to apply for it, he added.

Mr Teoh Eng Wai, group financial controller of construction firm Everlast Projects, was particularly pleased to find out that the scheme is now more flexible.

"Previously the PIC applied only to improvements made to your core business and there was a prescribed list of activities that were claimable," he said.

"But now we can also apply for the PIC for improvements made to our non-core business and, even if it's something that's not on the prescribed list, we can still apply and they will look at it on a case-by-case basis."

The firm is planning to invest in equipment such as scissor lifts and forklifts to boost productivity, he added.

Feedback from the participants towards the Wage Credit Scheme was more mixed, said Mr Fernandez, with many business owners worried that they will not be able to sustain the higher salaries they have paid to their staff when the scheme ends.

Some were also concerned that they would not be able to afford waiting for the subsidy to be credited to them.

Under the scheme, the Government will co-pay 40 per cent of the wage rises of Singaporean workers for the next three years, as long as the workers earn up to a gross monthly pay of $4,000.

However, the co-payment will be credited to the businesses only in the year after the increment is implemented.

Questions centred on two programmes

- Many business owners wanted to know how to apply for it and what kind of activities would qualify.
- Many business owners were worried about not being able to sustain the higher salaries paid to staff when the scheme ends.
-Some were concerned about not being able to afford waiting for the crediting of subsidy.

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