Growing resentment over foreign labour policy

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 06 Nov 2005

”Why are we providing jobs to foreigners when we can give them to Singaporeans?” demands an angry writer. “Doesn’t the government know unemployment causes pain, grudges and depression?” 

Another writer, in a more controlled tone, said he could not understand the rationale for the “foreign talent” policy in the wake of poor job opportunities and a widening income gap. 

“Why must the civil service, statutory boards and charity organisations recruit so many foreigners when we have so many jobless university and polytechnic graduates?”  

They are just a sample of public views in what has become an increasingly hot topic here in recent years.  

Singapore’s strategy of letting in large numbers of foreigners, some of them becoming permanent residents, has stirred up public bitterness just as opportunities for jobs fell. 

With general elections around the corner, the issue of jobs and charges that locals are losing jobs to foreigners are getting increased attention.  

The government may finally be on the verge of modifying the strategy that could lead to fewer foreign workers to dispel public anger.  

It would likely affect only low-income aliens on whom Singapore had traditionally relied on to do “dirty” work that Singaporeans had shunned. 

In recent statements, leaders have talked about measures to cut down reliance on foreign workers and crack down on employers who hire illegal workers.  

This is apparently not a change of its policy to attract talented foreigners to make this their home, but only to the lower-level workforce.  

Tiny Singapore, with one of the region’s most liberal immigration policies, looks set to keep its doors open because of its ambition to move quickly into high-tech services. 

Equally pressing, its future is threatened by a sharp birthrate decline and requires a top-up of educated foreigners to take up citizenship here. All these are likely to remain largely intact. 

What it wants is to expand employment for lower-strata Singaporeans with little education or skill. Many of them are unemployed but are now keen to work in “dirty” jobs that are going to import labour. 

It makes up a large number of disenchanted citizens that are also causing a widening wage gap and creating a chasm between rich and poor in Singapore. 

They also include semi-skilled workers who have been thrown out of work because of industrial relocation to China and elsewhere. 

This large pool of people does not generally take its unhappiness public, unlike the educated Internet-savvy professionals who have lost jobs. But they are more numerous and can make their votes tell in an election. 

Recently, the government-linked trade union movement drafted a proposal to clean up the image of some of the state’s unglamorous jobs, make them pay more (up to S$1,000 a month) to attract Singaporeans.  

If these people accept, the unions say they will persuade the government to bring in fewer foreign workers. 

It also wants these lower-wage workers to be exempted from contributing to the mandatory Central Provident Fund.  

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) proposal calls on the government to “tweak” the quota on foreign workers in service sectors, such as cleaning, landscaping and health care.  

Altogether there are 12 domestic sectors it wants to create “decent-paying” jobs for the less skilled. 

In a parallel move, the authorities also approved a S$100mil plan to open several training institutions over three years. Thousands of workers with practical experience will be provided certified training for various trades that will be recognised across the state.  

The objective is to provide formal training to locals and cut down reliance on foreign labourers. 

Union leaders have urged employers to upgrade and to provide jobs to Singaporeans rather than resort to cheap foreign alternatives. 

At one time the unattractive jobs were garbage collectors, road repairers, construction labourers and cleaners. 

But as affluence rose and the shortage of Singaporeans became more apparent, they spread to include waiters, salesmen, carpenters, plumbers, etc, where few locals could be seen. 

“It has become harder to employ Singaporeans because many are unwilling to work at the weekend, which is a critical requirement in the services industry,” said an employer. 

In recent months as the economy improved, job seekers have been having a better time. Job creation, officials said, would be strongest in four-and-a-half years.  

That’s good news for the middle class, whose wealth depends on its two-income families, but it isn’t enough to significantly reduce unemployment and not many of the new jobs are for better-paid professionals or graduates.  

The large influx of foreign labourers has never been a contentious issue among Singaporeans, who complain mostly about foreigners, especially from China and India, taking over IT and other professional work from them at lower wages. 

Much of the unhappiness is directed at companies, including government-linked ones, hiring foreign graduates as managers and executives, instead of qualified Singaporeans to save on salary.  

For these, the new government measures will offer no solace. The income drop, however, has the advantage of lowering costs and increasing general competitiveness. 

These moves may also provide practical relief to unemployed graduates, who are prepared to downgrade their expectations. In fact, many have already moved into sales or cab-driving.  

“It is rather ironic that after all the ‘plum’ jobs have disappeared that we now want to encourage Singaporeans to take up low paying jobs,” exclaimed one cynic.  

The poorer market has led to more talented Singaporeans taking up jobs abroad.  

Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website 

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