Foreign workers
Clouds over Paradise
The prospects are for tougher, less welcoming times ahead, reduced numbers and a stricter demand for qualifications. By Seah Chiang Nee  
Mar 23, 2013

(Synopsis: The changed political mood in this foreigners' haven is resisting government move to pack in more migrants.)   

The squeeze is on!

Foreign workers, who were once getting red carpet treatment because they were prepared to work cheaper and longer hours, are facing tougher times.

The doors will remain open but some of the old cordiality is missing.
 
From Filipino waiters to Indian executives, from Malaysian managers to Chinese salesgirls, their presence seems heading for at least a temporary decline.

Several converging factors are conspiring to bring this about.

The first is the fast changing politics. The new Singaporeans, young and middle-aged, are becoming more outspoken against poor policies.

Explaining the phenomenon, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government now has to negotiate a “major change” to a different brand of politics.

“It’s a different generation, a different society…” Lee told an interviewer. “We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness.”

In rising numbers, Singaporeans are demanding the authorities to cut back the number of arrivals and reduce Singapore’s over-crowdedness.

Many of the foreign workers, who make up a third of the work-force, are concerned about the proposed economic restructuring that is aimed at them, right at the heart of immigration.

Secondly, a weakening economy that may reduce employability and a third factor is the city’s high cost of living which is increasingly affecting these workers as well.

All this is not expected to affect the city’s long-term plan for a six million population by 2020 (currently 5.3 million).

However, the next few years could further cut their rate of arrivals.

“The six-million target may at worse be delayed by a few years. The immediate concern of the People’s Action Party (PAP) is to win the election in 2016,” said a political analyst.

To achieve that, it is making short-term adjustments, he added.

The government has taken a more urgent tone since the new budget was announced last month. It has rolled out several important measures towards a “Singaporeans first” policy.

That means firstly, a reduction of excessive demand for foreigners in both the service and unskilled sectors.

THE Less-Skilled - The impact was felt in this sector last year which saw a big reduction of new permits, affecting restaurants, retail, cleaning, etc.

Professionals - The Manpower Ministry announced two objectives that will affect them. One was to reduce discrimination in the hiring and promotion of locals.

Secondly, it wants to carefully screen the qualifications and credentials of imported professionals to ensure they are genuine.

There had been numerous complaints of fake degrees or false representations by under-skilled foreigners desperate to land a job here.

The Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Thuan Jin wants to stop the discriminatory practice by foreign managers who hire and promote workers from their own nationalities, bypassing Singaporeans.

He told Parliament recently that he and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had met senior bankers and other executives urging them to hire, and give better opportunities, to more locals.

His ministry was investigating several cases of discriminations.

One “fairly prominent company” had its work pass privileges suspended after it advertised for workers of a certain nationality, he said.

When a new system of approving S-Passes, granted to mid-level executives, comes into effect in July, as many as 70,000 foreign workers are reportedly at risk “of not having their S Passes renewed when they expire”.

News reports said the new system stipulates that more experienced pass holders have to be employed at higher pay to continue working here.

Government officials said about 70,000 foreigners – or one in two S-Pass holders - will be affected by the new system.

All these moves could have a major impact on the foreign presence in Singapore, if it is seriously carried out.

Meanwhile, this trend coincides with a slight deterioration of the industrial climate involving lower-skilled foreign workers, particularly Chinese mainlanders.

Since last November’s major bus drivers’ strike, there has been a number of smaller scattered actions by Chinese workers demanding higher pay and better working conditions.

The latest case involved private bus operators in which a number of Chinese drivers had taken individual action to demand equal pay with their Singaporean colleagues.

According to the New Paper, they showed up late “well after their morning shift had ended” or simply failed to show up for work.

Their action is not getting much sympathy from the Singapore public, which is generally happy to see a reduction of foreign workers.

A recent government survey showed that nine out of 10 Singaporeans support measures to tighten the inflow.

Other surveys revealed that the majority of people would prefer to settle for slower economic growth in return for a smaller population.

The impact could soon be felt in the labour front. Some small and medium size companies, desperate for workers, have said they may close.

And the shortage of public housing looks set to worsen as a result of the shortage.

The National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has just announced that new projects may take longer to complete – 32 to 43 months instead of the usual 30 months.

This revelation hardly stirred any reaction among the public, an indication that Singaporeans are prepared to accept the price for fewer foreign arrivals.     

This was first published in The Star).

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