SINGAPORE: The Government should do more to address job competition from foreigners amid mounting concerns among Singaporeans on the issue, Members of Parliament (MP) said on Monday (Aug 31) during the debate on the President’s Address.
This was a key theme on day one of the debate, with MPs touching on strengthening the "Singaporean core".
Suggestions raised in the House include having companies prioritise Singaporeans for jobs beyond considering them fairly, ensuring that firms grow their local workforce, as well as mandating that companies are transparent about their selection criteria and foreign workforce.
President Halimah Yacob had said in speech at the opening of the 14th Parliament last Monday that the Government will address the issue of work pass holders competing with Singaporeans for jobs.
Two days later, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo announced that the salary criteria for Employment Passes (EP) and S Passes will be raised, as part of a “regular calibration” to enable firms to hire the manpower they need while ensuring a strong Singaporean core.
READ: Job competition from work pass holders could become a 'divisive issue', will be addressed, says President Halimah
But MP for West Coast GRC Foo Mee Har said on Monday that she does not think the new measures “go far enough”.
"Many Singaporeans believe that they are being passed over for jobs that they can do because foreigners come cheaper, without the employer having to pay for CPF contributions and deal with National Service obligations, or simply because employers prefer to bring their own friends and families from overseas to fill," she said.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat said some employers offer higher pay to foreigners to qualify them for work passes, before reducing the salaries once they are in Singapore.
“I am told the employers would make this claw back clause as part of the terms of employment, and often they are verbally negotiated,” he said. “Food and beverage businesses run by foreigners are one of the culprits.”
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Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh said he has heard of employers who collect monthly fees from their employees to circumvent the system. “The bosses receive additional incomes and the employees qualify for the jobs,” he said.
Under the Fair Consideration Framework introduced in August 2014, employers are required to advertise openings on a government job portal before submitting their EP applications. This does not apply to job positions with salaries of S$20,000 and above.
Firms found to favour hiring foreigners over Singaporeans will be barred from applying for new work passes for a period of between 12 and 24 months, and will not be allowed to renew their existing work passes.
However, Ms Foo said the focus so far has been on giving Singaporeans "fair consideration". She called for citizens to be given priority.
“In other words, between two equally qualified candidates, employers should be obliged to pick the Singaporean over the foreigner,” she said.
"Such a 'Singaporean first' employment policy is consistent with other government policies where we accord significant benefits and priorities to citizens, whether it be housing, primary school balloting, school fees or healthcare subsidies."
MORE TRANSPARENCY ON FOREIGN WORKFORCE, SELECTION CRITERIA
Ms Foo said the Government should enforce transparency of selection requirements, adding that job vacancies advertised on the portal should contain “completely transparent” selection criteria.
“The employer’s final hiring decision must stand up to the scrutiny of others, including the firms’ own employees as well as the authorities, for having best satisfied these clear selection criteria, in order to foster a sense of fair play,” she said.
The Government should implement a dependency ratio or quota for EPs, with differentiated ceilings and salary levels for different sectors, Ms Foo said. “This will galvanise the necessary action on the part of employers, to reduce reliance on foreigners,” she added.
Senior management should also sign off on employment offers to EP holders and declare that the firm has complied with these requirements, she said. This will hold senior executives accountable, and penalise them if they make false declarations, she explained.
Lastly, Ms Foo said firms should ensure capabilities and skills transfer to local employees, with systematically developed succession plans linked to EP approvals for some sectors.
“Sectors with high concentrations of foreigners should then have their renewals of work passes be contingent on the firms meeting local succession and capability transfer key performance indicators,” she stated.
READ: Adjustments to Employment Pass and S Pass criteria 'timely' to help businesses retain local employment: Josephine Teo
East Coast GRC MP Jessica Tan said she previously worked in two multinational corporations with foreigners in key positions, but with clear development plans and a succession pipeline of local talent to fill these roles over time.
Ms Tan believes that many companies have such practices and plans, but have sidelined them to meet the demands of business, considering the speed and scale of growth in the last few years coupled with economic disruptions.
“I believe that while we do need policies in place to ensure fair employment practices, more importantly employers must have people plans to grow and strengthen the Singapore core,” she added.
“This requires commitment of companies in Singapore and investment to develop skills of Singaporeans with a balance of government policies and enforcement.”
READ: Names of employers suspected of discriminatory hiring practices should be released: NTUC's Patrick Tay
MP for Kebun Baru SMC Henry Kwek said many international companies have yet to build a strong Singaporean core in the middle and senior management ranks, expressing concern that this process will regress as they downsize amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Kwek said the Government should explore more ways of identifying tell-tale signs of systemic discriminatory hiring practices by ensuring that firms are transparent about the diversity of their workforce.
One way, he said, is to make it compulsory for companies with more than 200 employees and with EP holders making up more than one-quarter of their workforce to declare where these EP holders come from. This will apply to those earning S$60,000 and above annually, he suggested.
“Afterall, if the EP holders are dominated by one particular country, despite Singapore’s very diverse expatriate workforce, then how can Singaporeans be persuaded that there is diversity in these companies hiring and remuneration policy?” he questioned.
Workers’ Party MP Dennis Tan said that in the face of retrenchments and unemployment, the Government should take greater steps to ensure Singaporeans are given a “fair share” at the workplace.
Mr Tan, MP for Hougang SMC, questioned if the new salary requirements for EP and S Pass holders sufficiently addresses Singaporeans’ concerns, noting anecdotal discussions regarding the “notoriety” of the finance or IT industry having relatively higher numbers of foreigners.
“As the competition for scarce jobs heats up, relooking our employment pass policy is necessary,” he said.
“Should we not … re-examine our assumptions behind employment and economic policies more holistically so as to better encourage or incentivise, or if necessary, ensure that companies make greater effort to engage the Singaporean core at different levels of their company?”
NATIONAL HR COMMITTEE
West Coast GRC MP Ang Wei Neng suggested setting up a National Human Resources (HR) Committee that will work with firms and industry transformation maps to develop a Singaporean core.
The committee can have regular meetings with HR heads at major companies to understand their main manpower issues and commitment to building a Singaporean core in their management team, he said.
“By observing whether the head of HR of the major companies is helmed by a Singaporean is also a reflection of their dedication to build a Singaporean core,” he added.
“Second, the gathering and sharing of data gives us an effective platform to discuss meaningful strategies moving forward.”
READ: Foreigners keep Singapore ‘economically relevant’, but pay attention to the Singapore worker: Pritam Singh
Mr Ang said the committee could work with these companies to share best practices on hiring more Singaporeans, and develop guidelines based on these practices across industries.
“For instance, if a company has a regional headquarters in Singapore, it should have a plan to give their Singaporean executives regional exposure, which might open up opportunities for promotion later on,” he added.
“The same committee can also receive feedback from these companies and work with institutions of higher learning or training providers, to train Singaporeans who can take on higher-level jobs in the near future.”
RETAIN SINGAPOREANS OVER FOREIGNERS
In her speech, Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang said Singapore’s foreign workforce policy has largely been driven by the need to support economic growth, which would in turn create good jobs for Singaporeans.
Nevertheless Ms Gan, a first-time MP, said the Government needs to work with employers to ensure Singaporeans are viewed more favourably when applying for jobs, pointing to incentives like the Jobs Support Scheme and the Jobs Growth Incentive.
“In circumstances where retrenchment is unavoidable, and an employer has to choose between a foreigner and Singaporean, I urge the employer to lean towards keeping the Singaporean,” she added. “In short, if employers must retrench, retain the Singaporean over foreigner.”
Ms Gan said businesses that have a strong local headcount would attract more support, and are resilient during a time when border controls could impact the supply of foreign workers.
“And most importantly, by showing due consideration to the Singaporean core in this difficult time, the trust that is forged between your Singaporean employees and you will be further strengthened,” she said.
“This will augur well for you when your business picks up in the future and you need the support of your local workforce.”
Beyond that, Ms Gan urged global and regional companies to groom Singaporeans so they have a fair chance at senior and top management positions.
“Our goal is to get Singaporeans to be part of these global teams comprising diverse foreign and local talent,” she said.
READ: About 1,000 firms suspected of discriminatory hiring practices, placed on Government watchlist
Nevertheless, Ms Gan said Singapore must continue to stay open and provide businesses with access to global expertise and talent, although she said the Government will do its best to ensure fair job opportunities for Singaporeans and support them in gaining new skills.
“Ultimately, for every additional Employment Pass and S Pass that is issued to a foreigner today, we need to be clear that it is so that even more job opportunities will be available to Singaporeans in the future,” she stated.
“We will spare no effort to strengthen the Singaporean core, and walk the journey with every Singaporean. Because our people are our only asset, and every Singaporean counts.”
Additional reporting by Matthew Mohan.