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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Excuse me, are you looking for a job in finance?

Well, well. So many moves in past two days to deal with the angst about foreign workers filling up jobs that could be done by the Singapore core. 

The way I see it, the G agencies have come to a definition of a Singapore core: Singapore citizens and PRs. But let’s not haggle over definitions. The point is, will the measures work to move employers towards hiring locals instead of foreigners? 

The financial sector will have to pay Employment Pass holders at least $5,000 a month from September, which is a big leap from the current $3,900 and more than the other sectors, which now have to pay $4,500. 

It’s unprecedented for one sector to be singled out, but the Manpower ministry says that it’s because the sector is generally a better paymaster. Frankly, it’s a shame that few people had argued that the current $3,900 imposed just three months ago in May was pretty paltry in the first place compared to say what a fresh graduate would earn. It hardly fits the stereotype of an expatriate banker. 

What’s ironic is that we now have “experts’’, economists and analysts, wondering if this would affect Singapore’s status as a financial hub, and lead to more outsourcing – and the banks themselves saying it will have “minimal impact’’ on operations. 

Sigh. Are the banks saying this because they employ locals anyway, or is it because their EP holders have always busted the salary ceiling? What has been the hiring/firing record of financial institutions since the year started? 

That’s the trouble with the announcement about changes: they don’t come with enough facts. 

As I said in my last column, we’re not sure about the magnitude of foreign employment in the financial sector. We were given a couple of figures, which seemed to have been cherry-picked to make the situation look better, or with justifications for foreigners being in those jobs. Do the new salary requirements apply to the financial sector as employers, or only over their finance-type jobs? Because the financial sector is also notorious for hiring foreigners to staff its backend or technology operations.

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What bugs me is that the Monetary Authority of Singapore has “FIs’ workforce profile by locals (citizens and PRs separately) and foreigners, broken down by seniority, business function, qualifications, and so on’’, but is coy about making that public. If the statistics are considered a state secret, can MAS at least say what sort of impact the new criteria will have given its data?  

MOM also said it will extend the time the job ads will have to be put up to get local hires.  It will be 28 days, up from 14, before employers can fill them with EP holders and now, S pass holders.  Has this time limit been a problem? How so? I would have thought that in these days of high retrenchment, locals would be avidly scouring for jobs to put food on the table. 

Even though the concern about foreign employment is resurfacing now, amid the Covid-19 outbreak, MOM chooses to give statistics that aren’t quite relevant. It said, for example, that for EP holders, growth slowed from an average of 13,000 a year in the first half of the last decade to less than 3,000 in the second half. The corresponding figures for S Pass holders: 17,500 and fewer than 6,000. 

The only point the figures make is that “hey, over the years, there are fewer foreigners entering Singapore”. If so, why the angst NOW? 

The effect of the Covid-19 outbreak on jobs is a good chance for us to take a deeper look at our foreign employment policies but with lack of data, it seems that the discussion would be confined to policymakers and the (yet another) task force set up to protect local professionals, managers and executives (PME). 

Before looking at hiring, isn’t this also a good time to look at retrenchment polices of companies as well? What has been the proportion of foreigners retrenched compared to the local core over the past half year? Is it the case that foreigners are let go first, especially since they cannot enjoy any form of wage support?  

What’s heartening is that companies seem to be getting the message. 

Today, I read that Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre (Suntec Singapore) had retrenched 85 workers – 60 Singaporeans and permanent residents, and 25 foreigners. And that they  held jobs in food production, sales and events, human resources, and finance. It will have a remaining workforce of 89 local staff and four foreign staff.

When things get better, and I have no doubt it will, it will be starting with a stronger Singapore core in place. This is the time for companies to have a stronger bias for locals when they start growing again, aided by the many carrots that have been placed in their path.

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I also noted that there was a statement by the Trade and Industry Ministry stating that it was “misleading to attribute the number of Indian PMEs, especially intra-corporate transferees’’ solely or mainly to the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. It said such transferees accounted for less than 5 per cent of all EP holders, who number about 190,000. They come from different countries, with Indians forming only a small segment. 

So one figure has been pried out of MTI, even though it isn’t about CECA transferees only. MTI also said that permanent residency or citizenship isn’t automatically given out under CECA. That’s good to know, except that we don’t know how PRs and citizenships are given out in the first place. 

The G has had to keep repeating its position on CECA, because people aren’t convinced. It doesn’t gel with their lived reality. 

If the G were to answer citizens’ concerns, it would have to put the foreign employees under the microscope – what jobs they do here, where they work and where they live. This interference in private sector operations has to be weighed against the need to evolve a Singapore identity. Is it time to do that? 

There are also other concerns about CECA that aren’t answered, such as whether the terms are more favourable to the Indians than to Singaporeans or whether as FTAs goes, it is more generous to India than to others we’ve signed agreements with. 

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has tried to defend free trade agreements in an Economics 101 manner – that it creates a bigger pie with more jobs for all. These days, people want to know how that pie is sliced and whether some people get a bigger piece. 

In 2016, the former Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, in answer to a question in Parliament, flatly declined to give data on foreign manpower with data on nationality, including data on transferees from India. 

I can only surmise that the G believes that people will interpret data any way they want (that is, wrongly), adding to polarisation and generating more heat than light. That will probably be one result. Civic participation in a democracy tends to be like that. The flip side is that the G should be able to stand up to scrutiny and persuade people based on the facts. It shouldn’t think that its assertions are good enough. 

When Minister Josephine Teo was asked about implementing a quota for EPs, she gave the usual line about not being closed to policy options. “But based on the desired employment outcomes, the aim is to help businesses to recover, and not to introduce major shocks to the current system,’’ she said. 

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“We shouldn’t go overboard. We should make sure they are meaningful adjustments that support local employment but not to the extent where it will impede a company’s ability to recover and grow within Singapore.” 

If not a quota, what about a ratio of local to foreign workers as is the case with some work permit sectors? What about a commitment that multinationals will work towards a certain proportion of workers over time in some kind of technology transfer agreement? 

Heck. What am I talking about? We don’t even have the data to come up with an argument. We have to leave it to MOM(MY).

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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