Wednesday 26 June 2013

New guidelines for job flexibility in service sector kick in 1 July 2013

Foreign worker job flexibility: Bosses urged to share gains
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2013

THE Manpower Ministry (MOM) has urged service sector employers to share with their foreign workers the productivity gains which a new scheme may bring.

From Monday next week, restaurants and retailers can get their foreign work permit holders to do more than one job.

The concession, first announced in February, is to help companies cope with higher levies and smaller foreign worker quotas in the service sector.

Currently, foreign workers can do only the job for which they were hired.

But employers should be reasonable with this new flexibility, MOM said yesterday.

It released three pages of guidelines detailing how the scheme, which could affect some 209,500 workers, will be implemented.

A waiter can man the cash register, but not repair kitchen equipment without training, it cited as an example.

Given that the scheme will allow companies to improve productivity, employers should share the gains with their workers, especially those asked to do more work, said Mr Adrian Chua, MOM's divisional director for manpower planning and policy.

The non-binding guidelines, which contain mostly dos and don'ts, were drawn up after consultation with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

They also urged employers to ask workers in writing whether they would do more work for higher pay.

Companies should not penalise those who say no.

MOM, which preferred the use of guidelines instead of formal rules, wants workers to talk to their employers or unions if the guidelines are not followed.

But it also warned that it would act if there were serious breaches.

The guidelines state: "MOM reserves the right to curb work pass privileges against companies in egregious cases of non-compliance."

The guidelines were generally welcomed by employers.

SNEF executive director Koh Juan Kiat agreed that employers should train their workers before expanding their job scopes.

"Employers should also brief their workers properly on expectations and benefits," he said.

Mr Hoon Thing Leong, chairman of the Kim San Leng chain of coffee shops, felt that the scheme, which does not allow foreign workers to switch companies or sectors, could be expanded.

"MOM could consider allowing us to deploy workers across different companies or subsidiaries, as long as they are part of the same chain," he suggested.

Guidelines for employers
- Include job flexibility in broader plan to raise productivity.
- Share productivity gains with employees through higher pay or better perks.
- Give all workers the chance to multi-task, but do not penalise those who decline.
- Ensure workers are trained before asking them to do new areas of work.
- Be sensible and reasonable in implementing job flexibility.

Bosses cheer job flexibility scheme
Most say it lets them make better use of foreign staff
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

ABSOLUTE Kinetics Consultancy has been looking to grow its business and the new job flexibility scheme was the green light it had been waiting for.

The local training and safety consultancy firm will be able to hire foreign workers to do more than one job starting next Monday.

"This scheme is long overdue," said the firm's executive chairman Fang Koh Look yesterday. "When we expand, we want to hire workers who can multitask and fit across the various businesses in the firm."

Most of the 10 employers interviewed by The Straits Times said the new programme will open the door for them to make better use of existing workers, although some remained unsure of its impact despite details announced by the Manpower Ministry on Monday.

The change, first announced in February, was introduced to help firms cope with higher levies and smaller foreign worker quotas in the services sector. It will allow firms to increase their workers' productivity by having them do more than one job. Some 209,500 foreign work permit holders stand to benefit from it.

Mr Raj Kumar, managing director of travel agency International Paradise Connexions, said that it will provide leeway for his firm to add new job functions without increasing headcount.

He cited an example of how a Vietnamese-speaking sales staff in his firm can also be trained to serve inbound tourists from Vietnam, arranging hotels and tours for the visitors.

Mr Fang agreed. He said that he will now be on the lookout for workers who can not only work in the training arm of his business, but also in medical and telecommunication equipment sales. About 20 per cent of his 120 staff are foreign workers.

But Ice Cube Cafe managing director Philip Wong felt that small firms will not benefit much from the scheme because they do not have as wide a range of jobs as bigger companies.

"For example, there may not be (financial) accounts work for service staff to handle," he said.

Besides size, the specialised nature of some jobs can be an obstacle too, said Mr Nazarisham Mohd Isa, director of security firm Jasa Investigation and Security Services, which hires work permit holders from Malaysia.

"We hire guards and provide security services, and it is not feasible for guards to do other work when there is already a shortage of guards," he said.

For the scheme to work, the key is finding workers willing to multitask, said most firms. Ms Mimi Yii, a general worker at home-grown coffee and toast chain Ya Kun, agrees. The 30- year-old Malaysian work permit holder was hired to clean and wait on tables six years ago, but she has since been trained to toast bread, cook and brew coffee.

Her monthly pay rose from $900 to $1,400 as her responsibilities grew.

But she admitted to being apprehensive initially over whether she could do so many jobs and if she would be paid fairly.

"At the end of the day, there has to be trust between employer and employee," she said in Mandarin.

Job Flexibility Scheme
Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together
Productivity-wise, more work, more pay sounds like a no-brainer. But in the service sector, it will require willing and fair-minded bosses, and willing and motivated workers.
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 18 Jul 2013

FROM this month, foreign workers in restaurants and retail shops can be asked by their bosses to do more than one job.

Previously, they could do only the job they were hired for. So before the rules were changed, a waiter could not wash dishes or man the cash register.

This latest job flexibility scheme for work permit holders is a concession by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to help firms in the service sector cope with the tighter curbs on foreign workers.

It is timely. These firms face a double whammy from this month: Their foreign-worker quota has been cut and they will pay higher foreign-worker levies over the next two years. And since these firms cannot hire more foreigners and have to pay higher taxes for currently employed ones, it makes sense to permit their foreign workers to do more work.

The ministry was clearly worried about bosses exploiting workers when it issued a set of guidelines asking firms to be sensible and reasonable when getting their workers to do more. Firms have to put the new job scope for their workers in writing, train the ones who agree to take on the additional roles and pay them more, said the MOM.

Besides concerns over exploitation, something else bears close watching too: Will the scheme boost productivity?

It will take more than safeguards for the new move to raise labour productivity. And the local workforce provides a clue on what might happen.

The elusive multi-skiller

COMPANIES are already free to get their local workers to do more than one job - as long as they do not break labour laws.

But having interviewed many workers and company bosses as a journalist covering the manpower beat, I have met only a small handful of multi-skilled local workers. They are as rare as finding the sambar deer in the MacRitchie nature reserve.

So having a scheme that allows workers to multitask is not going to boost labour productivity in itself, unless three corresponding changes also take place.

First of all, firms have to reorganise their business operations so that their employees can do multiple jobs. Mr Zainal Sapari, a labour MP who has been pushing firms to boost productivity by reorganising their jobs, said that two things are holding firms back.

Besides the cost of buying new equipment and training workers to use it, firms also worry about how their business operation and bottom line would be affected by such job redesigns.

"Job redesign is moving faster in some sectors than others," he said, pointing to the hotel sector as one that shows promise.

Two years ago, the Park Hotel Group started a three-in-one job scheme in which workers were trained and put to work as waiters, receptionists and housekeepers. They were paid as much as 50 per cent more than the staff who performed one job.

Still, one may argue that such a scheme is not too difficult to implement in a hotel in the first place. A hotel faces predictable peaks and troughs in its labour needs: Waiters are needed during the dining hours, housekeepers rush to clean rooms in the late morning and receptionists are busiest in the afternoon when guests check in. No substantial job redesign is required and workers are merely put to work as and when they are most needed.

One other local hotel went one step further this year. The Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium in Outram Road trained all nine of its security guards to be bellhops, and five of its bellhops to be security guards.

These 14 Singaporean employees received a pay hike of between 10 per cent and 18 per cent for doing a wider range of duties. The hotel's general manager, Mr Sam Davies, said that the cross-training was instigated not just by the labour crunch but also to provide locals with better-paying jobs so that they can be retained.

Still, these two hotels are the exception rather than the norm. Even for them, workers who are crossed-trained form a minority.

Besides the hotels and some restaurants that have trained their staff to wait at tables and man cash registers, there is a dearth of examples in other sectors of how cross-training has increased productivity or addressed the manpower shortage.

So even if firms are willing to reorganise their business operations, workers doing multiple jobs are not going to be the mainstay of their workforce. For now, these are likelier to be found in hotels and restaurants.

Merging outsourced jobs

BUT this can change if there is a parallel shift in how firms, especially property owners, outsource.

Mr Woon Chiap Chan, the country managing director of ISS Facility Services - one of Singapore's largest cleaning companies with over 6,000 cleaners - has a bold idea. "If more companies award multi-service contracts, there is a chance for the multi-skilled workers scheme to work," he told The Straits Times.

This is the second change that will give a boost to the job flexibility scheme.

Property owners - condo managements, shopping malls and even government agencies - typically parcel their service contracts into three parts: They look for different companies to maintain, protect and clean their premises.

If these contracts are merged, there will be economies of scale and an incentive for the contractor to find workers who can do all three jobs, say, an electrician who also handles cleaning machines or operates security cameras. Such a multi-skilled worker will definitely be paid more than what an electrician, security guard or cleaner earns individually.

At the very least, this person can be tasked to supervise cleaners, guards and building maintenance workers, which will still increase labour productivity because three supervisors would have otherwise been needed.

But some security firms are not excited by the prospect of having their guards do other jobs. The boss of one such firm remarked that having a guard do cleaning work is a distraction since guards need to be alert at all times.

Checks with security and cleaning industry veterans found that such omnibus contracts are rare here.

It is up to the local property owners to take the bull by the horns. There are already international companies in Europe and the United States that provide cleaning, maintenance and security services to their clients. There is no reason why such a model will not work here.

Willing workers needed too

BESIDES firms and owners of premises, there must also be enough workers who are willing to take on different jobs for higher pay. This is the third factor for the job flexibility scheme to work.

Local entrepreneur Wei Chan, who runs several food and beverage businesses, said workers' attitudes matter. For instance, a multi-skilled worker may be asked to pull more shifts. When asked why workers turn away work even for higher pay, he replied diplomatically: "They want a five-day work week, (higher) job designation and work-life balance."

Another cleaning company boss said: "Will an electrician even do cleaning work? He may see cleaners as unskilled and the job as beneath him."

On the other hand, social worker Jolovan Wham is concerned that bosses may exploit workers. Once the foreign workers have been made to do more jobs, the local workers will be next, which will deter even more locals from joining, say, an already shunned sector, he argued.

The balance probably lies in-between: Not all workers can be expected to be equally enthusiastic or hungry for more work, but with fair bosses, reasonable pay and proper work conditions including work hours, most can be motivated to do more work.

To be sure, the job flexibility scheme is a sound idea, be it for local or foreign workers. But there are hurdles to overcome if it is to give a significant boost to Singapore's labour productivity. It comes down to whether firms can reorganise their businesses, whether companies that outsource work are willing to hire big contractors to create economies of scale and provide incentives to recruit and train workers who can perform multiple roles, and finding sufficient numbers of workers willing to do multiple jobs.

Job flexibility can take off only when all three pieces of this puzzle are in place.

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