By Kainga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) – The small Southeast Asian island republic of Singapore has been praised by both global business leaders and the international media for its openness to global trade and professional talent movements. It has made this nation of just over 4 million people – 1 million of who are foreigner – one of the richest nations in the world on a per-capita basis.
But, the open economic policy that has led to this may have run its course with locals becoming increasingly resentful of having to compete with “foreign talent” for jobs.
The government has now decided to act tough against employers who discriminate against locals ignoring the ‘Fair Consideration Framework’ that was introduced in 2014. Under this, firms must advertise job openings that pay below SGD 15,000 (USD 11,125) a month on the national Job Bank for at least 14 days before applying for an employment pass for a foreigner.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said early January that it is timely to weed out those local employers who see the Job Bank as a paper exercise. With the global economic slowdown hitting the Singapore economy and the job market tightening up, especially for middle-level professional jobs, the local population that is well educated has begun to express resentment.
“In places where the workforce is multinational, like Singapore, perceptions of discrimination against locals are particularly toxic,” said Ms Teo. She added that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices has followed up on over 2000 complaints of discrimination in the past four years.
Recently, during a heated argument with the opposition, the government refused to table in parliament figures giving the breakdown of the Singaporean and foreigners appointed for new professional jobs created in the republic.
“The employment issue in Singapore is a complicated one,” argues technology professional Kim Tan, who is in his mid-40s. He told IDN that “locals, especially those after 40s, are finding it hard to get jobs that could provide them with remuneration to educate children and look after aging parents”.
“The 40s to 50s age group looses jobs at a stage in their lives when they can least afford it,” said Tan. “Searching for their inability to get jobs, many identify the liberal immigration policies by the Singapore government as the major reason.”
Under the government’s updated framework, employers found guilty of discrimination will not be able to renew work visas for existing employees during the period of debarment. In the past, this applied only to new applicants.
Ms Teo said that cases where action has been taken included employers who have pre-selected a foreigner for the job, but went through the motions with Job Bank advertisements that omitted requirements where locals could fit in.
“It is not easy to run a small business if the Singapore staff job hop all the time,” complains businesswoman Elizabeth Wong, who runs a craft business. “If I get a foreign worker, she will be ‘bonded’ to the job for at least 2 years because the work permit is linked to the job.”
The government and professional groups argue that the tightened regulation with respect to hiring foreigners is a reflection of the need for local firms to show commitment to train, promote and safeguard the long-term interests of local talent. But, for many small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) this is an added burden in a tough international trade environment.
“It is no problem for MNCs (multinational companies) but for SMEs it is a big problem,” argues the owner of a small but successful IT company here, which has employed a number of foreign talent. Speaking to IDN on the condition of anonymity, he says that when he brings in a well-qualified foreigner he is able to create many support staff jobs for locals in his company.
“I bring in good experienced foreigners who are able to train locals,” he points out. “(Thus), the government need to look at employment pass applications on a case by case basis. It is SMEs not MNCs that are innovating here. Applying this framework across the board will kill local startups,” he argues.
In a fast moving digital economy that needs to keep pace with the rapidly changing global communication and trading environment, Singapore’s workforce needs ongoing reskilling. To assist mid-career professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) the government has recently renewed a reskilling program that will help them to move into in-demand tech jobs.
Tan points out that foreigners come here to work and make money, with many leaving their families back home. “They are more likely to work overtime, unlike their local counterparts who might have to take care of their children and parents,” he notes. “Foreign workers’ lower flexibility in changing jobs (because visa is linked to the employer), makes them more attractive to employers who are frustrated with high turnover rates (of local staff).”
Tan warns that rising distrust and resentment toward foreign workers could turn into a political issue that would be disadvantageous to the government. “The challenge for the Singapore government is to maintain a balance between ensuring employment for locals and letting in quality foreigners to add to the talent pool,” says Tan. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 January 2020]
Photo: Santosa island and Singapore harbour one of the busiest ports in the world. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS
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