SINGAPORE: Local authorities can do more in their bid to protect the Singaporean workforce, labour union leader Patrick Tay said in Parliament on Monday (Aug 31).
In his speech addressing President Halimah Yacob's remarks at the opening of Parliament last Monday, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Pioneer SMC and Assistant Secretary-General for the National Trades Union Congress laid out several suggestions for the Government to consider to “further strengthen the Singaporean core”.
Like the higher qualifying salary requirement for the financial services sector, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) should also consider raising the minimum salary criteria for the infocomm technology and professional services sectors, he said.
There are generally more companies from these industries on the national hiring discrimination watchlist, said the MP.
On Thursday, MOM announced stricter criteria for Employment Passes and S Passes as labour market conditions worsen amid COVID-19, and an even higher qualifying salary requirement for the financial services industry - the first time the ministry is doing so.
READ: Minimum qualifying salary to rise by S$600 for Employment Passes and S$100 for S Passes, higher requirement for financial services
READ: MAS supports increase of minimum qualifying salary for entry-level EP holders in financial services sector
While the minimum qualifying salary for new Employment Pass candidates will be raised by S$600 to S$4,500 in general, the amount for financial services candidates will be raised to S$5,000.
However, Mr Tay acknowledged concerns raised to him and other union leaders that the new rule could widen the salary gap between foreigners and locals.
They told him that employers would simply raise the salaries or repackage benefits of their foreign employees to keep within the boundaries of the rules, something that is easily done in sectors which traditionally have higher-earning Employment Pass holders, he said.
At the same time, their Singaporean counterparts may not get a similar pay hike, especially during a time when wage freezes and cuts are commonplace.
To address this issue, Mr Tay promised that the unions will “closely watch the actions of employers”, while urging workers in non-unionised companies to join a union so they will be protected.
HARSHER PENALTIES FOR RECALCITRANT OFFENDERS
The Government could also rescind preferential tax benefits from companies that keep unfair recruitment practices and disallow them from winning public sector contracts, Mr Tay said.
Additional penalties could be imposed on firms that are what Mr Tay termed “triple weak” - companies with highly disproportionate numbers of foreign professionals, a weak commitment to nurture and strengthen the "Singaporean core", and weak relevance to Singapore’s economy and society.
Besides the existing rules, MOM could publish the names of these firms that repeatedly fail to show concerted efforts to up the proportion of Singaporean workers, so that the potential loss of reputation would serve as a deterrence, Mr Tay said.
And as many economic incentives appear to be granted based on total headcount created in Singapore instead of sustained local hiring, a formal mentoring process should be enforced so that foreign professionals actually pass on their skills to locals.
This could come in the form of monetary penalties, in which economic incentives end if senior Singaporean professionals are not hired within a certain period, or there was no transfer of skills, he said.
Mr Tay added that Singapore needs to rethink its stance on anti-discrimination legislation, and that laws on hiring bias - instead of just guidelines under the Fair Consideration Framework - should be explored.
More legal power could also be given to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, the agency in charge of addressing workplace discrimination and harassment.
“The world has moved on to embrace sustainability and related environmental, social and governance legislation, which encompass fair employment," said Mr Tay.
“Similarly, fair employment legislation has not stopped the likes of London and New York from being vibrant financial centres."
He also pushed for more transparency over foreign executives that move to Singapore as intra-corporate transferees, even though they make up less than 5 per cent of all Employment Pass holders in Singapore.
READ: Names of employers suspected of discriminatory hiring practices should be released: NTUC's Patrick Tay
Under current laws, employers do not need to first advertise the transferee’s role on the official jobs portal MyCareersFuture.sg before applying for their Employment Pass.
Aside from improving regulations, Mr Tay urged organisations and their leaders to be more fair towards Singaporeans - by changing their mindsets about taking on locals, and offering regional and global opportunities to Singaporeans since Singapore has welcomed these foreign professionals.
If the measures he recommended do not work, Mr Tay suggested that the authorities impose a quota, which could come in two tiers - one for higher-skilled professionals with significantly bigger salaries, and another for mid-skilled executives whose pay is at the industry’s median salary range.
“With this two-tier quota, companies will still be able to hire foreign talents with specialised skillsets to drive technology-based initiatives,” he said, adding that this quota could be introduced gradually to help companies adjust.
RESENTMENT TOWARDS FOREIGN WORKFORCE
In recent weeks, the country has seen the issue of competition from foreign workers return to the public spotlight.
Many have claimed that foreign professionals take away jobs from locals, and that deals like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) give preferential treatment to Indian nationals.
Last week, the Ministry of Trade and Industry released a statement to dispute claims about the CECA, saying that it does not automatically grant Indian nationals access to Singapore citizenship, permanent residence or employment here.
READ: CECA does not give Indian nationals automatic access to citizenship, PR status, employment: MTI
READ: CECA does not grant Indian nationals unconditional access, immigration privileges: Chan Chun Sing
“The disruption brought about by COVID-19 and the resulting economic recession has surfaced ground concerns on the increased competition for jobs and employment,” Mr Tay said.
He cited how in the past month, at least 20 professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) told him they felt discriminated against, and had lost out on job and workplace opportunities.
“I cannot help but wonder if, as a result of unchecked conscious and unconscious bias, there may still be instances of nationality bias in hiring and promotion and in today’s context, retrenchments?
“The reality is, left unchecked, this would exacerbate the glass-ceiling effect and issues relating to job opportunity for our Singaporean PMEs,” he said.
However, Mr Tay added that he is not advocating for closed-door policies, agreeing that as an open trade economy with low birth rates, Singapore has to bring in foreign labour to address its labour gaps.
But with about 1,200 firms still on MOM’s hiring discrimination watchlist, “market failure exists in our current employment framework,” he said.
“We need to guard against abuse of our system, by giving Singaporean PMEs a fair chance at local job opportunities, which will also mitigate any potential brain drain," he said.
“This also instills loyalty and fosters a sense of belonging and identity amongst Singaporeans. This is not diametrically opposed to ensuring economic survival for Singapore."
QUOTA "INFINITELY MORE PAINFUL" THAN ANY OTHER PENALTIES
In response to calls for a foreign workforce quota, Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said that curtailing work pass privileges is not an adequate measure in the long run.
“I have come from the private sector all my life. I have run a sizeable global conglomerate in healthcare,” the former chief executive officer and managing director of IHH HealthCare said in his maiden speech in Parliament.
“If we think we can choke off key manpower supply by curtailing employment passes or establishing a quota, I think this is going to be infinitely more painful for the companies then any other penalties that you can think of imposing."
He said that the authorities will not allow companies to practice “wanton discrimination” against local workers, but at the same time he urged job seekers to be “more realistic” in their expectations during this difficult economic climate.
“We ... will give Singaporean job seekers a stronger boost by working with businesses to give more serious consideration to Singaporeans when hiring, especially those who are willing to adjust their expectations and adapt,” said Dr Tan, who is also the Second Minister for Trade and Industry and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.
He also said he wanted to reassure businesses that Singapore is neither "inward looking", nor turning away global talents and investments.
“We will continue to welcome those who bring in valuable skills in short supply,” he said.
“Such top-tier workers allow our businesses to build the best teams in our country, so that we remain globally competitive, while also helping, at the same time, to attract high-value investments and anchor higher value activities in Singapore.
“And our local workers can also learn from the expertise of such skilled foreign workers,” he added.