|Hard data needed to assure local workers|
|Thursday, 26 March 2009 08:00|
It surfaces in coffee-shop talk and cyberspace chatter, in hushed conversations on factory floors as rumours of layoffs make the rounds, and even in debates in Parliament.
In fact, more than 90 readers responded to a recent Straits Times Insight feature on foreign workers here, with almost eight in 10 saying that jobs should be reserved for locals.
A hot issue? Without a doubt. It is also an emotive one.
However, this does not mean that it should be swept under the carpet. We need more open and informed discussion, so that there is better understanding among all parties concerned. We also need more information, if only to put other information in perspective.
Last week, some figures released by the Manpower Ministry (MOM) caused some raised eyebrows.
The figures showed that foreigners took most of the new jobs created last year - seven in 10, up from six in 10 the previous year.
The foreign population surged past the one million mark for the first time, with foreigners making up 36 per cent of Singapore's workforce, up from 30 per cent in 2007. The foreign workforce grew by 157,000 last year, up from 144,500 in 2007. In contrast, the local workforce grew by just 64,700 last year, down from 90,400 in 2007.
On their own, these figures do not tell you that they have to be taken in the context of the boom times. Both 2007 and 2008 were boom years, with more jobs being created than there were locals to fill them. They also do not tell you that many of the jobs filled by foreigners last year were in the construction and service industries - jobs which Singaporeans usually shun.
Statistics shock, but sometimes the shock can be unnecessary.
This year, as the economy slips headlong into a long, hard recession and the jobless brigade swells, the Government ought to take pre-emptive action to prevent resentment towards foreigners from building up.
One way of defusing such potential tension is to give Singaporeans more reassurances that they are not getting the short end of the stick.
Yes, foreigners are valuable to Singapore's economy; they help to enlarge the economic pie; they benefit locals who will have more jobs to choose from.
This, however, is an economic argument that speaks to the head more than the heart, and is not enough to fully convince locals.
What Singaporeans want, and need, is to know how their interests are being protected.
Government-funded schemes aimed at reducing retrenchments help. The Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience (Spur), for example, subsidises employers when they send local workers for training. The Jobs Credit scheme helps employers defray their costs of keeping local workers.
Problems arise, however, when, in spite of these schemes, layoffs still occur. At these times, workers want to be assured that locals do have some privileges over foreigners, and will not be laid off ahead of the latter.
How can they be assured? Hard data, hard information.
During the Budget debate last month and again in yesterday's Parliament session, some MPs asked if the Government intended to tighten the inflow of foreigners seeking work in certain sectors here in view of the recession.
While there wasn't a clear 'Yes' or 'No' answer, it is understood that there are moves to impose more stringent requirements on semi-skilled foreigners on the S-Pass scheme - such as nurses, retail executives and aerospace technicians.
These S-Pass holders, whose numbers grew, albeit at a slower pace now, are seen as those who compete most directly for jobs that Singaporeans can take up too.
The only problem is, there have been no details yet on the changes.
There has also been no word on how many foreigners here have lost their jobs through retrenchments or early termination of contracts since the economy was battered by the global financial crisis.
Official figures released are only for total retrenchment and redundancy; they do not distinguish between locals and foreigners.
Nor are there updates on the number of foreign work permits that are cancelled or not renewed.
If foreigners are supposed to be a buffer for locals during a downturn, there should be figures to show that a greater proportion of them are, indeed, taking the hit this time around.
In Parliament yesterday, Acting Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong did note that the number of foreigners working here will dip, in line with falling demand for manpower in this recession.
He also indicated that retrenchments have so far hit mostly the financial sector, which hires more locals than foreigners. Only when retrenchments hit the manufacturing sector, which hires more foreigners, on a big enough scale will the presence of foreigners among the retrenched be more obvious.
Even as he made it clear that it is important for Singapore not to send the wrong signal to foreign investors that the country was shutting its doors to foreigners seeking work here, however, Mr Gan also said some figures on foreigners' employment could be made public next month. However, he did not give details.
I agree that it is important to maintain the correct balance between investors' interests and ensuring the employment of locals.
But my argument is not about keeping foreigners out or fanning protectionist sentiments.
Rather, it is about numbers that will give the reassurance that locals need in this recession.
They need to know that as Singapore rolls out the welcome mat to foreigners, it will not be at their expense.
By Sue-Ann Chia, Senior Political Correspondent