Consumer boycott
Will it work in Singapore?
Yes, in certain sectors, if aimed at stopping discriminate hiring of ‘cheap’ foreign workers where Singaporeans are available. By Seah Chiang Nee
Oct 26, 2013
(Synopsis: It may even become a future norm if the authorities act too slowly or weakly against errant employers.)

A NEW trend may be establishing itself in Singapore’s current affairs.

Impatient citizens who feel the authorities are too slow or reluctant to act strongly against discriminating employers are attempting consumer boycotts to speed up changes.

The mass action is aimed at recruitment advertisements that discriminate against Singaporeans in favour of foreigners. This time, the government, which generally tries not to upset investors, has moved a bit faster to confront the problem.

The threat of a public boycott, hitting errant companies in the pocket where it hurts – has become a popular response of social activists to stop an increasing trend of “Singaporeans need not apply” job advertisements.
An early case was a British firm trying to recruit an art director by proclaiming the applicant “must have Singapore residency (PR) or PEP visa status (a permit that allow a professional to switch jobs)”.

Several other cases have taken place recently, some of them prompting the Manpower Ministry to investigate them.
However, some tech-savvy Singaporeans have started boycotts against discriminatory businesses that advertised only for foreign workers or permanent residents.
Also being targeted are companies whose foreign workers, including from mainland China, who insist on speaking Mandarin to non-Chinese speaking Singaporeans.
Such blatant job discriminations largely aimed at bringing in cheaper workers, have cropped up.
The use of boycotts has become a popular tool among activists against job discrimination.

Under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, consumer boycotts or mass action were frowned upon for fear that they would spill over into policies.
There is no sign that such political concerns have dissipated.
Not all boycotts are successful; Singaporeans are not easy to organise.
The most vulnerable are the highly competitive food and beverage companies which depend greatly on people’s goodwill. The least likely to work are firms that sell goods or services to other companies.
Recent cases that worked partially or very well included:

** A restaurant selling Swiss food offering “high salaries for Filipino chefs” to work in a 100% Filipino crew and working environment. Several boycott calls and an apology from the owner (who blamed his Filipino manager for the action) did not really resolve it;

** A Filipino fast food restaurant faced a similar threat after it gave job priority to Filipinos over Singaporeans (denied by the company). An online boycott call was apparently ignored by long lines of diners, many of whom were Filipino workers;

** A duck soup stall reported it lost 40% of its business after a mainland China worker chided a customer for being Chinese but unable to speak Mandarin. After his story appeared online, business fell by a third. The boss eventually employed a local worker to deal with non-Chinese speaking customers; and

** A recruitment agency posted a controversial advertisement to recruit a merchandiser planner that proclaimed: “This position is open to candidates who are not Singaporean Citizens or PR.”

To some, the message clearly contravened the Fair Employment Practices, which declares that “Words or phrases that exclude Singaporeans or indicate preference for non-Singaporeans should not be used”.

There are some cases in which companies turned to foreign recruits because they cannot get suitable locals despite paying good market wages. But many employers are simply looking for cheaper and exploitable foreigners.

Ironically, this is happening in the wake of surveys that show Singaporeans are ranked among the world’s hardest workers.

The latest survey by Nanyang Siang Pau (Malaysia) and China Times (Taiwan) found that they work longer hours than anyone else clocking 2,140 hours a year compared to workaholic Japan’s 1,745 hours.

Many Singaporeans are concerned about insufficient protection against being unfairly replaced. At present, 40% of the workforce comes from abroad.

Others complain of foreigners forming enclaves with overseas managers employing their own countrymen to work under them.

On the other side of the coin, there is increasing concern that a portion of local anger is turning xenophobic, which explains why boycott appeals may gain popularity.

“People feel that they have to act rather than depend on the government to protect them,” one blogger said.

The government has begun to investigate and, in some cases, taken action against some wrongdoers. Ten small and medium companies which have been caught have been barred from hiring foreign staff.

The current leaders, too, probably do not want to see a successful mass action taking hold in society, which will make it harder to control.

At any rate, it has adopted several measures to cut down such practices under a “Employment for Singaporeans First” strategy.

From August next year, there will be new rules that compel many companies here to consider Singaporeans for skilled job vacancies before turning to foreign candidates.

Firms with more than 25 employees must advertise a vacancy for professional or managerial jobs paying less than S$12,000 a month on a new jobs bank administered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency for at least 14 days.

Only after that period can the company apply for an employment pass to bring in a foreign national.

The first thing the Manpower Ministry does is to force the companies to take down discriminatory ads immediately. “We will withhold all work privileges from these firms during investigation regardless of who had posted them.”

Under pressure from the public, the government is generally making it more difficult to hire foreign workers like slapping higher fees on employers in some sectors and lowering the percentage of new service workers from 45% to 40% of the workforce.
Will the measures work in significantly reducing the foreign inflow?   

“Unlikely”, remarked some analysts.

(This article was first published in The Star)