Throwing the doors open to more foreign workers

Posted by Seah Chiang Nee under Policy Watch on 18 July 2009

Throwing the doors open: allowing service employers to bring in one foreigner for every Singaporean they employ could redirect the future direction of Singapore.

Many Singaporeans - like manager Joyce Ng - may be forgiven for asking: "Where is the job crisis? Is the recession for real?"

Despite the recession and a large loss of jobs, Ng, who runs The Whisky Store, was having anything but an easy time when she tried last month to hire one local worker

She ran six advertisements and got two responses, both persons quit after a trial.

Her complaint is shared by other employers who say that the Singaporean service worker is becoming a disappearing breed despite the downturn.

Singaporeans, including the newly-retrenched, appear reluctant to take up many types of service work, especially in eating places, shops and public transport.

Yet these are places that seem to be showing some new life. The Sunday crowds are back in impressive numbers, eating and shopping, as if the crisis is just a memory, and some bosses are rehiring.

Why are unemployed Singaporeans staying away from service jobs? In America car engineers have worked as hamburger flippers – but never here!

The baffling question is best left for the sociologist, rather than the economist, to answer. Some blame it on misplaced expectations.

Singapore has produced a new highly-educated generation with high expectation, so jobs perceived as lowly get ignored.

It is a national problem. The shortage affects every consumer in Singapore.

Significantly raising wages may attract local workers, but it will lead to higher prices for consumers' pockets.

It is driving Singapore to become more dependent on foreign workers, who already make up a third of its work-force and its population.

In the latest case, hundreds of cooked food-stalls, a major source of cheap meals, petitioned the government to be allowed to hire more workers from overseas.

Many of these low-margin - but socially important - operations had been forced to close because they couldn't find locals to cook, wash and serve customers.

Each closure deals a blow to the lower-middle class workers and students who frequent them on a daily basis," a Chinese newspaper reporter said.

"The issue we face now is that there are less and less Singaporeans willing to join. Fundamentally there is no stable staff base to train," explained an executive of a food and beverage chain.

Availability is just one aspect, the other is that the foreigners work harder, longer hours, while accepting sharply lower salaries.

Employers would rather have cheaper, harder-working nationals from China, India, Myanmar, Philippines, etc, working for them entirely - but for a government permit quota restriction.

Last month the authorities significantly loosened it for the service sector, which makes up 65 per cent of the economy.

Employers can now hire five foreign workers for every five locals employed - up from a 3-in-7 ratio.

This change is merely following the reality on the ground. For many months now, so many foreigners have been seen in public places that even a one-for-one rule appears irrelevant.

As an example, of the 136,500 service jobs created last year, more than half – or 54 per cent went to foreigners.

Served By Foreigners

Today Singapore is served by foreign nationals more than they are by their own people.

If they pull out, life here comes to a complete standstill.

They work as waiters, sales-persons, cooks, nurses, bus drivers, and a wide range of white-collar service jobs.

They hail from some 20 countries all over the world, led by Malaysia, China and the Asean region, the latest being Nepal.

The relaxation may have been timed to come just ahead of the scheduled launch early next year of the two big casino resorts – Sands at Marina Bay and Resorts World at Sentosa.

Both need tens of thousands of workers - more than Singapore can produce by itself, so the bulk may come from abroad.

Some say the green-light to allow one foreign worker to match every Singaporean in the service industry, will have a big impact on the demography, and even redirect its history.

The reason is that the accounts for a massive 68 percent of the Singapore's total work-force.

The majority are here on contract and may leave after a few years, but the unending recycling itself will have a permanent mark on the city.

The strategy has turned a full circle from a generation ago. At the time, large multi-nationals were flocking in to open up factories to manufacture products for export.

I remember how shocked I was at being told that my country, to survive, needed a massive inflow of foreign workers because our citizens could fill only one of every seven vacancies generated.

The official mindset towards the issue, too, has changed.

The political leadership under Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and Mr. Goh Keng Swee was a lot more wary about having too many foreigners.

The first concern was not its social impact, but the nation's stability and security.

In several briefings, we were cautioned that having too many foreigners working in our midst could expose this tiny island to possible foreign manipulation - or even control.

The use of foreign workers to organise strikes and street violence could be become a weapon by a foreign power to blackmail Singapore.

In one briefing, editors were also told that Singapore would avoid Europe's ‘addiction' to cheap labour from Asia and Africa.

Look at the street violence they imported from home to the streets of Paris and other cities! I was told.

To prevent this, Singapore opted to automate operations to stem the high manpower consumption, and move some factories to Batam and other places.

But these days, under the shadow of an economic crisis, such talk has all, but disappeared. We seem to be moving the opposite direction.

(A slightly shorter version was published in The Star on July, 18, 2009)

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