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Singapore reviewing if more can be done to help firms hit by labour crunch, entry curbs: Tan See Leng

Singapore reviewing if more can be done to help firms hit by labour crunch, entry curbs: Tan See Leng

Rails and signs mark the borders of different work zones at a construction site in Sembawang. (Photo: Cheryl Lin)

SINGAPORE: Authorities are “very mindful” of the labour crunch that companies in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors are facing, and will continue to review if additional support measures are needed, said Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng on Tuesday (May 11).

These sectors, which are heavily reliant on migrant workers, have borne the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions, including a recent ban on long-term pass holders and short-term visitors from India where the outbreak has worsened.

Speaking in Parliament, Dr Tan said the number of work permit holders in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors fell by nearly 60,000, or 16 per cent, last year.

Providing a further breakdown from March 2020 to April 2021, these sectors saw an average net outflow of 2,400 work permit and S Pass holders monthly. Among these, 1,800 workers were from the construction sector.

The services sector lost about 42,000 workers over the same period, representing a net outflow of 3,200 per month.

Altogether, these sectors are seeing a net outflow of 5,600 workers a month, said Dr Tan.

READ: Companies seek alternatives as workers from India, Bangladesh dwindle

Authorities have taken steps to alleviate the manpower shortage, by granting entry approvals to an average of 5,100 work permit and S Pass holders every month from November 2020 to April 2021.

But restrictions on workers from higher-risk countries are "likely to persist for some time”, he said. 

“This is as the size of the inflows coming in has to be reduced when the COVID 19 situation deteriorates in these source countries … and we can only increase these inflows when the situation in these home countries improve,” Dr Tan told the House.

“Because this is the only way we can ensure a safe inflow of the workers whilst managing and mitigating the risk of transmission in our community.”

More recently, higher foreign-worker levy rebates were announced for companies in the hard-hit sectors. The rebate for each work permit holder in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors will go up from S$90 to S$250 per month from May to December. 

Construction firms will also get more flexibility to hire workers from China and more time to complete public sector projects as part of support measures announced last month.

READ: Construction firms hit by India travel ban to get more flexibility to hire China workers

“The Building & Construction Authority (BCA) and Economic Development Board will continue to engage firms and we will continue to review if additional measures are needed to help the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors through this crisis,” said Dr Tan.

“In the meantime, we encourage businesses to retain their existing migrant workers and tap on other workers that are already here in Singapore.”

Authorities are also looking at workers from non-traditional source countries, but “this will take time”, said Dr Tan.

“For the diversification of source countries, the different ministries … are exploring that collectively and we have started to reach out to counterparts in many of these other source countries – the non-traditional sources – to see how we can onboard them,” he said in response to a question from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.

“But obviously, I think this will take time because there are also language and cultural issues. These are things that we have to take into consideration.”

READ: Migrant workers stuck overseas amid border restrictions; contractors struggle with labour crunch

The “automatic” extension of in-principal approvals (IPAs) for foreign workers is also under review, said Dr Tan in reply to a separate question from Mr Singh.

Mr Singh cited anecdotes of companies facing repeated unsuccessful applications for the entry permits of their workers who have been issued with IPAs. He noted that the IPAs are currently given an automatic extension and asked if this is set to continue and how long will these extensions be.

An IPA is one of the requirements for employers recruiting foreign workers to Singapore. It is issued when a work permit is approved, and employers have to bring the workers in during the validity period stated on the document.

The validity of these IPAs differs based on the type of work permit, said Dr Tan.

At the moment, IPAs are issued as long as the applications fulfil existing requirements, he added. But the Government regulates the inflow of foreign workers into Singapore via the final entry approvals, which are decided based on several factors such as restrictions decided by the Government’s COVID-19 task force and the availability of stay-home notice facilities.

“Because of that, you’ll find that the IPA approvals will far exceed the number of entry approvals coming into Singapore,” he said.

With the extension of the IPAs, the “backlog of cases … has increased significantly”, Dr Tan added.

“As a result, even if you allow for an automatic extension of the approval process, it doesn't make sense because the extension is going to go months ahead without any certainty as to whether ultimately we can grant the entry approvals,” he told the House.

“I think that's where the challenge is today because we have no way of telling whether … many of these source countries where we get our workers from can actually provide certainty of a control of the outbreak.”

“The extension of the validity of these IPAs … is something that we are now reviewing,” Dr Tan said, adding that authorities are also looking at the possibility of reimbursements of application fees.

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Source: CNA/sk(gs)

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