SINGAPORE: The issue of foreign workers in Singapore was again raised in Parliament during the Budget debate on Thursday (Feb 25), with MPs from both sides of the aisle speaking up on the matter.
Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai (PSP) said there was an “urgent need” to rebalance the local foreign worker mix in Singapore’s job market.
He suggested that the Government “level the playing field” for Singaporean workers by imposing a S$1,200 monthly levy on Employment Pass holders. This will address the “wage disadvantage” that Singaporeans have because of Central Provident Fund contributions, he said.
“This levy will differentiate the true foreign talents ... from the foreign talents who are simply cheap labour that compete unfairly with our Singaporeans and whom our economy has become overly dependent on,” he said.
Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang said that Mr Leong’s party is entitled to their view that the foreign-local worker mix needs rebalancing, but the Government has a different view.
“I cannot help but come to the conclusion that Mr Leong and PSP do not believe that Singapore should be an open city connected to the world having locals and foreigners complementing each other, and he wants Singapore to close up for the top jobs to be given to Singaporeans only,” she said.
Responding to his suggestion for a levy on EP holders, she said: “A blanket levy on EP holders is a signal to foreign investors that we don’t quite welcome them bringing in their own talent.”
Denying that PSP wants Singapore to close up, Mr Leong again raised the issue of having a Singaporean CEO for local banks, asking: “What is MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) doing?”
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who is an MAS board member, also jumped in, saying that he had already covered what MAS has done to cultivate local talent in the finance industry in a previous debate.
“We always wish that there’s a menu that says we get all the jobs but yet no competition, but I’m sorry there’s no such menu. The menu is open up, more competition, but we build capabilities and we can seize more opportunities,” he said.
WORKING CONDITIONS OF LOW-WAGE JOBS
MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied) pointed out that in many industries like construction, Singapore is more reliant on foreign manpower than other developed countries.
“There is a need to ensure a strong core of skilled, capable Singaporeans in key industries. It is also desirable to foster skills transfer from foreigners to locals.”
Noting that the Progressive Wage Model will be rolled out for more industries, Mr Perera stressed that even if wages are raised, many Singaporeans may not want to take up lower-wage jobs because of the poor work conditions.
“Are workers in that role provided with adequate tools, protective gear and training? Are working hours and mandated break times sufficient? Are conditions of work made as physically comfortable and safe as it is in other countries? Is the culture in the workplace sufficiently respectful of the worker?” he asked.
Nominated MP Raj Joshua Thomas, who is the president of the Security Association of Singapore and the director of a security company, also addressed the working conditions of lower-wage workers like cleaners and security officers.
He raised concerns about the provision of rest areas and better working hours for outsourced workers.
Employers should also ensure that workers on their site are only required to do tasks they were deployed and trained for, he said, citing the security guard who died in 2015 after falling down a lift shaft while trying to pry open the lift doors.
MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) repeated the Workers’ Party’s call for a national minimum wage, first proposed at S$1,300 in take-home pay per month.
He called for the recognition of essential workers in 3D jobs - dirty, dangerous and difficult - that “have turned out to be more essential than some white collar jobs”.
“With the restrictions in supply of foreign workers and the reluctance of many locals to take up 3D jobs, the demand for workers in these occupations often exceeds their supply. Based on the law of supply and demand, these workers’ wages should naturally rise to reach a higher equilibrium price,” he added.
“In practice, however, many of their wages still remain painfully low. This is in part because of the structure of our industries and in part because our society does not esteem them highly enough. This is a market failure,” said Mr Giam, adding that the state should intervene to ensure the workers’ earnings match their value in society.
Several MPs also spoke on employment for seniors and other vulnerable workers.
While initiatives like the special employment credit and Retirement and Re-employment Act have been introduced, there are still seniors who want to work but struggle to secure suitable and adequate employment, said MP Tin Pei Ling (PAP-MacPherson).
“Ageism is unfortunately rather rooted in Singapore despite an ageing workforce, ageist mindsets can be found in many workplace settings,” she added.
“Negative stereotypes about older people, that they are slower, weaker, more rigid, less productive, can significantly hinder the deployment of precious human resource and discourage development even as we promote lifelong learning.”
Ms Tin suggested that the Government push companies to review their HR policies to make discussing re-employment with their senior workers a standard operating procedure.
MP Yip Hon Weng (PAP-Yio Chu Kang) raised similar points, saying that Singapore is an ageing society, and workplaces must adapt to accommodate seniors or will soon face a labour crunch.
He suggested that the Government help promote the creation of “micro-jobs” that allow seniors to work part-time by offering search and listing platforms to match demand and supply.
During the COVID-19 “circuit breaker”, many workers with special needs struggled to find alternative roles, said MP Cheryl Chan (PAP-Fengshan).
“For this community, the larger impact they face goes beyond income, as the routine was abruptly disrupted. With the mental state for many of them inevitably scarred, with the new and future economy, can we find new avenues for more microjobs to be created for adults with special needs?”
WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE
A number of female MPs spoke up about how the Budget affects women in Singapore and shared their views on how to better support and empower women.
One main theme they touched on was support for caregivers - many of whom are women.
“Our women often play important roles as caregivers in our families, and we want to support them in caring for their loved ones,” said Minister of State for Social and Family Development and for Education Sun Xueling.
She highlighted that the Government is increasing spending on the early childhood sector and has expanded pre-school capacity to help give women care options when they go back to work.
Giving more details on the Inclusive Support Programme, she said that while there is government-funded early intervention services for young children with development needs, parents find it hard to shuttle their children between their pre-school and a separate centre for early intervention.
The programme to integrate the intervention programmes at the pre-schools will be piloted at a few schools, she said.
Ms Tin said that there is a need to digitally empower women to capture job opportunities in a digitalised economy.
She suggested introducing more scholarships and education awards to encourage girls to study technology and related subjects in school and creating environments in companies that are “enabling” for both men and women with family commitments, among others.
“We have hidden gems within our women population, waiting to be discovered or for the opportunity to shine,” she said.