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ECONOMY, HR & EDUCATION | Staff Reporter, Singapore
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Singapore's foreign workers left in limbo amidst tighter manpower rules

The foreign worker quota in the services sector will be cut as finance minister Heng notes that the growth in S-pass services holders hit a five-year high in 2018.

The foreign workers in Singapore's services sector face heightened risk of losing their jobs after finance minister Heng Swee Keat announced in his budget address that the government will be reducing the dependency ratio ceiling (DRC) for the services sector from the current 40% to 38% by January 1, 2020 and to 35% in January 1, 2021. The S Pass sub-DRC for the services sector has also been tightened from the current 15% to 13% on Jan 1, 2020, and to 10% from Jan 1, 2021.

Also read: Everything you need to know about the Big 4's reactions to Budget 2019

According to a Bloomberg analysis, when the dependency ratio ceiling was at 45% in 2013, a business with 20 full-time locals (citizens or permanent residents) could employ 16 foreigners. In 2015, the ratio was reduced to 40%, so for the same 20 locals, three foreigners had to be cut. With the recent move to further lower the dependency ratio to 35% by January 2021, two more foreigners need to be let go whilst keeping the same 20 locals in employment, and adding more locals to make up for the difference.

One of workers at risk is Jean*, an S-pass holder who came to Singapore ten years ago and now works at a popular supermarket chain to support her family in the Philippines.

“I heard that they were cutting down the number of foreign workers. Of course, we’re worried because there is a possibility that we could get cut. We worry constantly because they have been tightening since 2008,” she said in Filipino.

There are an estimated 160,000 Filipino workers like Jean in Singapore.

What it means for businesses
The move didn’t come as a surprise to analysts, which have observed that the government’s call for a firmer foreign worker policy is motivated by economic restructuring amidst a moderating GDP growth. Morgan Stanley economist Zac Su commented, “Our view has always been that we are unlikely to see any easing up of the curbs on low-skilled foreign workers, given that the aggressive immigration policies before the 2008/2009 Global Financial Crisis had come with the side effects of supply-side bottlenecks, asset price inflation, and political ramifications.”

The rapidly ageing city has long tried to plug its thinning workforce with foreign employees who in turn were eager to seek career and social mobility opportunities in sleek Singapore. The total foreign workforce has inched up steadily from 1.32 million in 2013 to 1.37 million in June 2018, data from the Ministry of Manpower show.

The services sector has been the key driver of net employment adds over the last three years, according to Jefferies Singapore. S-Pass and work permit holders have risen 3% annually over the period versus 0.6% annual growth for the total labour force. S-Pass holders have a minimum monthly salary of $2,300, whilst the median basic wages for the overall service sector ex-financial services for the non-managerial grade is at the range of $2,000- $4,000.

The stricter rules of foreign workers would also deal a blow to labour-intensive service companies like Sheng Siong, Jumbo, Raffles Medical, SMG, HMI, ComfortDelGro, Singapore Post, and SATS where labour cost is a major expense, accounting for around 20-50% of their total revenue, according to UOB Kay Hian. 

"[The] tightening of foreign manpower policy will increase labour costs," the firm said in a report. "Our back of the envelope calculation indicates that labour costs for the companies under our coverage could increase by 0.4% in 2020 and 0.6% in 2021. This is based on the key assumption that the total expenses of a local worker is around 20% more than a foreign worker."

Also read: Foreign worker policies spur short-term pains for food, retail, and rentals

With this in mind, Singapore is actively expanding the use of technology to plug the chronic talent shortage as Minister Heng also announced the planned extension of the Automation Support Package (ASP) by two years in an effort to help firms deploy robotics and IoT technologies amongst other initiatives to upskill the local workforce.

In this scenario, however, foreign workers like Jean lose out as they remain in limbo about how longer they can still stay and work in Singapore. After applying for permanent residency twice and being rejected on both counts, she expresses hope that the government can start to value the contributions of foreign workers like herself to Singapore’s prosperity. 

"I am very grateful to Singapore as the host country but I hope that they will do more for the foreign workers who help build Singapore. We are not just workers but we are humans who have families to support. What will become of us after the host country cuts our jobs after we have served for 10 to 20 years? We can go home to the Philippines, but then who will hire us when we are already in our late 30s and 40s?" 

*Name withheld upon the request of Jean

Photo from Exec8 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 

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