Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Fair Consideration Framework: The new jobs bank; will it work?

Will the new Fair Consideration Framework give Singaporean workers a fair go in the job market, or will its rules lack enough teeth to be effective? Insight's Toh Yong Chuan and Janice Heng talk to firms, human resource experts and political watchers.
The Straits Times, 28 Sep 2013

SINCE news broke six months ago that firms would be made to give Singaporeans a fair chance when hiring skilled workers, many wondered what form it would take.

The labour movement floated proposals. The Manpower Ministry (MOM) held public dialogues.

Employees, local and foreign, waited to see how it would safeguard or squeeze them. Companies wondered if it meant more red tape and increased costs.

On Monday, the wait ended, with the unveiling of MOM's new Fair Consideration Framework.

Its centrepiece is a government-run jobs bank where firms have to advertise jobs for at least 14 days before hiring skilled foreigners on Employment Passes (EPs). And the ministry will keep an eye on firms which face complaints of bias, or have too few skilled Singaporeans.

The aim: to ease concerns that firms may hire foreigners without giving Singaporeans a shot, and to tackle the practice of foreigners "hiring their own kind".

The new question now is: To what extent will this help level the playing field for Singaporeans?

MOM: I am the boss

THE changes are a dramatic departure from MOM's long-standing preference not to interfere with how firms hire and fire.

"It sends a very strong message to employers that 'I am the boss and I want to protect Singaporeans'," says Member of Parliament Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower.

But will it work?

Experts say the jobs bank looks promising. Firms can tap a larger pool of job seekers, while Singaporeans can find out about openings. While companies can post advertisements to hire any nationality, they can say that they want only Singaporeans. "The jobs bank provides a national focal point where companies and job seekers know where to look," says Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan.

One boss who will benefit is Mr Sam Chee Wah, general manager of manufacturer Feinmetall Singapore, who has had trouble getting Singapore applicants: "When we want to hire older, experienced Singaporeans, such applicants may not see our ads, as they may not know all the places online."

Such transparency also means firms cannot quietly hire foreigners without letting Singaporeans know the job is there.

Some firms may "go through the motions" of advertising jobs, says recruitment expert Martin Gabriel - but it will be harder for them to explain why they cannot find Singaporeans if the jobs do not require specialised skills.

The jobs bank also gives MOM a big-picture view of the market.

Says UniSIM associate professor Randolph Tan: "It focuses on looking for the gaps and, hopefully, using that information as a basis for a manpower training policy to address those gaps."

Firms that MOM places under additional scrutiny will have to hand over data such as organisation charts with nationality information, and plans to develop local staff for higher roles or reduce reliance on EP holders. Those which do not improve may have to promise that for two months before and after seeking or renewing EPs, they will not displace any Singaporeans in similar roles.

Uncooperative firms face a longer wait for EP applications - or even being stripped of their ability to hire foreigners.

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong thinks the moves will bite: "The threat of what is essentially an MOM audit of a company's hiring practices is not to be lightly dismissed, and the possibility of losing work pass privileges is a very real stick that can cause very real pain."

Is there a fear factor?

YET doubts remain. Some think little will change, as most firms already try to hire Singaporeans.

Take Spring Professional, which recruits in IT and engineering - the former being a sector seen as foreigner-dominated. Its managing director for South-east Asia, Mr Serge Shine, says: "From our point of view, local talents are already preferred, since that allows for faster placements."

A more pressing issue is whether the framework has enough teeth to tackle errant firms.

"For an employer who wants to discriminate against Singaporeans, the framework will continue to allow him quite a bit of leeway," says NMP and Singapore Management University (SMU) associate professor Eugene Tan, noting firms do not need to produce data such as interview records.

HR consultant David Leong argues that for the jobs bank to work, MOM has to be "actively using the system", including even conducting "joint job placement exercises" with firms, so that the ministry understands why locals are not landing jobs.

But MOM tells Insight that as many firms already consider Singaporeans, "it would not be appropriate for MOM to assume the worst of every employer, and hence institute intrusive checks on whether they have considered all Singaporean applicants".

Indeed, firms could argue that they have good reasons for hiring foreigners. International public relations firm Bell Pottinger (Asia) has eight foreigners in its 20-strong Singapore team. "We service both local firms and multinationals, we need the diversity of having both locals and foreigners. If we had a British client, then a British consultant would build a strong rapport with the client," says chief executive Ang Shih-Huei.

Similarly, banking and finance is seen as a problem sector. But it requires multinational talent to deal with a multinational client base, argues Mr George McFerran, Asia-Pacific managing director of eFinancial Careers. "If you look at the industry in Hong Kong, New York, London, it's a melting pot. That is its nature."

And though firms often say the right Singaporeans cannot be found, National University of Singapore (NUS) economist Shandre Thangavelu notes: "The issue of lack of suitable local applicants is quite easy to justify by the firms but difficult to prove otherwise."

MOM's additional scrutiny is meant to address this. Firms will receive attention if they face repeated complaints of bias, or have a disproportionately low share of Singaporeans in professional, managerial and executive roles.

For this to be effective, MOM has to "instil the fear factor by strictly... applying it" in sectors and firms where locals keep getting rejected, says Mr Gabriel.

Some have noted that there are no legal sanctions proposed. But the aim of keeping an eye on firms is "not, in the first instance, to seek to mete out harsh penalties", says MOM. "The goal... is to rectify the discriminatory employment practices, and this is best done through a cooperative relationship with the firms."

But it adds: "Should the firms be unresponsive, we do not rule out naming the firms."

Mr Zainudin thinks this can be effective even if firms are not named: "It will still frighten the socks off firms when MOM steps in, because of our reputation of not taking such things lightly."

Soothing anxieties

WHAT some see as toothlessness could be deliberate caution.

Mr Siew sees the framework "as an attempt to strike a carefully calibrated balance" on the issue of ensuring fair opportunities for Singaporeans, while preserving openness to foreigners and hence attractiveness to business.

The latter concern may have led to a deliberate light touch, says SMU's Mr Tan.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin himself has stressed this is not a "Hire Singaporeans Only" policy. Firms must give fair consideration, but locals must also prove themselves.

So even as the framework sends a signal to firms to be fair, it reassures them that Singapore is open for business.

But another signal is also being sent to a different audience.

"I think at one level it is clearly trying to assuage Singaporeans' concerns," says SMU's Mr Tan.

Says NUS associate professor Reuben Wong: "In many ways, it's symbolic. It signals to Singaporeans that their interests are being looked after."

But both academics dismiss the idea that assuaging Singaporeans' unhappiness was a primary or major objective. The framework is ultimately aimed at firms, they say.

Dr Wong adds that though the framework may be a relatively light touch, it should be seen in the context of ongoing foreign labour tightening measures: "All the screws are being tightened."

Asked how it would measure the framework's impact, MOM says it hopes to see a fall in the number of complaints to watchdog Tripartite Alliance of Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP).

It will be an uphill task. TAFEP did not reveal exact figures, but said about half of 303 complaints it received last year were nationality discrimination complaints. The complaints spiked to 194 in the first six months of this year and "over half" were over bosses preferring foreigners, said TAFEP.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin declined to be interviewed, but wrote on MOM's blog that "the Fair Consideration Framework is unlikely to be a silver bullet" as the ministry balances keeping Singapore open, yet keeping hiring fair.

Monday's announcement ended six months of conjecture. Now, all eyes are on whether MOM has indeed found the right formula.

How Singaporeans can 'compete fairly' in PME job market

I AM both fascinated and frustrated by the new Fair Consideration Framework that aims to give Singaporean workers a "fair go" in the job market ("The new jobs bank: Will it work?"; Sept 28).

I am fascinated because Singapore is a knowledge and employment hub, and how the Government handles the current tension between its local and foreign workforces is likely to have significant ramifications on productivity, infrastructure and trade for at least the next decade.

But I am frustrated because, as a global mobility researcher, I see a clear contradiction between what Singaporeans say they want and what they are prepared to do to get it.

Singaporeans appear unwilling to relocate abroad to acquire and develop international competencies ("Overseas jobs: Home comforts in the way"; Sept 13), which all developed economies rely on not only to advance their international interests, but also to educate the local population via reverse knowledge transfer.

As Ms Joyce Loh pointed out ("What's stopping us from working abroad"; Sept 14), working overseas is frequently a prerequisite for getting a senior leadership position in the company, because it exposes employees to skills, cultural experiences and ways of doing business that cannot be acquired by working only in one's home country.

These skills and competencies are precisely what is needed to ensure that Singapore remains a competitive economy. And yet Singaporeans appear unwilling to do what is necessary to acquire them.

The fact is, many professional, managerial and executive (PME) jobs are filled by foreigners who have the required international skills and competencies, or at the very least, are willing to acquire them.

If Singaporeans are not willing to work abroad to acquire these skills, it stands to reason that they have no chance of being able to "compete fairly" in the PME job market.

They are also not offering employers an alternative to foreign candidates.

Simply put: To be eligible for a PME job, one has to have the necessary skill sets, the acquisition of which increasingly requires working abroad.

Singaporeans cannot have their cake and eat it too. If they truly desire to compete fairly in the PME job market, then they, too, must be willing to sacrifice the comforts of home and work abroad, and then return home to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Yvonne McNulty (Dr)
ST Forum, 8 Oct 2013

No 'unfair' advantage for Singaporeans

DR YVONNE McNulty ("How S'poreans can 'compete fairly' in PME job market"; Tuesday) made a valid point that Singaporeans must be willing to sacrifice the comforts of home and work abroad to gain the right "international" experience, which is a prerequisite for senior leadership roles in multinational corporations.

However, I am baffled by her "frustration".

The Fair Consideration Framework was put in place to ensure that employers give due consideration to hiring Singaporeans for professional, managerial and executive (PME) jobs that pay less than $12,000 a month.

It does not give Singaporeans any "unfair" advantage over foreigners. If employers want to game the system and hire foreigners, there is no legislation to stop them.

Besides, the "international competencies" that Dr McNulty mentioned are more relevant to senior leadership roles, which are likely to command monthly salaries higher than $12,000, and hence are not subject to the framework.

What the framework really serves to do is raise awareness about discriminatory hiring against Singaporeans for "mass market" PME jobs.

Most of these jobs do not require international experience.

When commentators say Singaporeans are not willing to work abroad or do not possess the "right" skill sets for PME jobs, they must back that up with data collected from a large enough sample size.

Many Singaporeans work in various parts of the world, and several young citizens have ambitions to venture overseas.

In fact, many who are already working abroad are not returning to Singapore because of better career opportunities elsewhere. What is more constructive is to find ways to lure them back.

Ng Kheng Liang
ST Forum, 12 Oct 2013


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