In Singapore, backlash against foreign workers becomes hot political topic

Foreign workers in Singapore | Photographer: Wei Leng Tay | Bloomberg

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Singapore’s success as a financial hub has long been linked to its openness to global talent. But as the city-state struggles to recover from its worst recession, a backlash in some quarters against foreign workers has once again made its way onto the political agenda.

Opposition politicians are stepping up scrutiny of jobs held by expatriates, as this perennial debate over Singapore’s dependence on foreign labor sharpens. Some 70% of residents have called for strict limits on the number of foreigners entering the country, according to an Institute of Policy Studies survey released earlier this year, even as ministers recently tried to make the importance clear. to attract talent. Further debates in parliament are expected in the coming months.

“We have about four to five local universities that produce that many graduates each year. Things are not like 60 years ago, ”said Kian Peng, a freelance photographer. “Is the government sure that we still need so many foreign SMEs? he said, using a common abbreviation for white-collar workers, including professionals, managers and executives.

For many foreign companies, Singapore’s low taxes and modern infrastructure make it one of Asia’s most attractive places to do business, especially as Hong Kong is caught in the crossfire of US-China tensions. . But Singapore’s growing angst over foreign workers, a particularly hot issue in local press and social media, is putting pressure on the government to explain its approach and could complicate hiring decisions, so as the country tries to stimulate post-pandemic growth.

In response to the backlash, two top ministers issued statements to parliament this month, defending the government’s balance of promoting local jobs while ensuring that international talent can help the economy thrive.

“We must not inadvertently shake the foundation that has made Singapore successful,” Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, a former trade negotiator, told lawmakers. “You can’t survive, you can’t earn a living, without being connected to the world, without being welcoming to the world. “

The head of Singapore’s central bank also weighed in on this debate. In a series of lectures that ended this week, Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, said on Wednesday that although net jobs for locals have increased and there have been plenty of positions vacant in the first quarter, there are still many more who are unemployed.

“We are a short-lived economy facing severe skills shortages that we have had to rely on well-qualified foreigners to fill,” said Menon, speaking in a personal capacity. “Let us also recognize that many foreigners who come here to work are highly skilled, passionate about their work and honest. They work hard, stay overnight, provide good products and services, and contribute to our society. “

Read also: Singapore defends hiring of workers from India and other countries as opposition seeks limits

Yet the environment has undeniably changed.

Banks, fund managers and advisory firms are among companies that have come under increased scrutiny as government clamps down on alleged shortlisting of foreigners for jobs or fails to give Singaporeans a fair chance .

The pass framework has been tightened, as the minimum allowable wage threshold for managerial and mid-level positions has increased over the past year.

Unlike before, foreigners living as dependents now need a company sponsored visa to work – unlike employment rules in Hong Kong where dependents of permanent residents and foreign professionals are not faced with no ban. And while the government introduced a two-year visa last year to attract global tech professionals, the program is not open to mid-career talent who might compete with locals for jobs.

The change is also being felt in the blue collar industries. The government said in the February budget that it would reduce the proportion of foreign workers in manufacturing to 15% by 2023, from 20% currently. Two years ago, he announced that he would reduce the quotas of foreign workers for the service sector to 35% by 2021, from 40% in 2019.

“To some extent, the economic effects of the pandemic have mitigated the effects of these restrictions,” said Devadas Krishnadas, CEO of Future-Moves Group, a consultancy specializing in public policy and business strategy. “However, if these restrictions remain in place during the economic recovery, it will be a source of frustration in finding the best talent available in a global hinterland.”

Covid-related travel restrictions, including delays in processing entry permits, exacerbate hiring problems, according to the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

“City-states are fragile economic units, they need a dynamic economy to survive,” said Victor Mills, director general of the chamber. “We all need to recognize that it is about teamwork, local and foreign talent working together for the benefit of their businesses, their customers and society as a whole.”

Nonetheless, foreign labor has long been a flashpoint in Singaporean politics. Ten years ago, discontent over immigration won the ruling party 60.1% of the vote cast, its worst result to date.

In last year’s general election, the main opposition party, the Workers’ Party, which had its best performance in its history with 10 of 93 parliamentary seats, issued a manifesto that included a tightening of leave approvals. -pass for employment and business incentives to hire citizens.

Foreign labor was a hot topic in the elections “because of their huge impact, including contributing to the growing perception of unfair employment opportunities for locals, an overcrowded transport system as well as on rising house prices, ”Singapore-based Nydia Ngiow said. Senior Director at BowerGroupAsia, a strategic policy consulting firm.

The number of permanent residence visas granted – an immigration status that comes after full citizenship – is declining, hovering around 30,000 since 2010, compared to 79,167 in 2008.

The number of employment passes – issued for professional roles that pay at least S $ 4,500 ($ 3,323) per month – decreased 8.6% in 2020 from the previous year, according to data from the Ministry of Manpower. This is in part due to the pandemic-induced recession and tighter restrictions.

According to a mid-year survey by the British Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, the number of foreigners working in the city-state contracted by 18% in the first half of 2021.

The decline is not enough for some.

“While it is undeniable that there is a need for foreign workers in many sectors and jobs, it is inevitable that they have replaced Singaporeans in certain sectors such as technology,” said Ethan Tan, a recent graduate who wishes to pursue postgraduate studies, summarizing the point of view of those in his social circle. “The government has to accept that what it thought was balanced is obviously not working as well as it should.”

According to the study published in March by the Institute of Policy Studies, some 43.6% of Singapore’s 2,012 residents said they believe immigration increases unemployment, although the figure is lower than those surveyed in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan. As for the 70% in Singapore who wanted strict entry limits for foreigners, that figure was higher only in Malaysia and Taiwan, out of nine countries surveyed.

In the parliamentary debate on July 6, Health Minister Ong said that foreign professionals “help cushion the impact on the local workforce when times are tough” and “bear the brunt of the losses. jobs ”during a recession. During the pandemic that ran for 12 months through April this year, the number of work pass holders fell by around 21,600, he added.

Despite this, the unemployment rate for the country’s citizens reached 4.9% in the third quarter of 2020, the highest since the same period in 2009, according to government data.

Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore, said tighter rules on foreign labor should not be interpreted as shutting down the country.

The government maintains a “delicate balance between people and business” and such policy adjustments would remain necessary as it seeks to find common ground, he said. –Bloomberg

Read also: As Covid brakes return, Singapore should now focus on the data that matters

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