, Singapore
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Do Singaporeans really object to all foreign workers?

By Chris Reed

I wonder if the Singaporean people really do object to all foreigners coming into Singapore and taking jobs which could otherwise be filled by Singaporeans?

Do Singaporeans want to become hotel workers and waitresses, cleaners and construction workers? The evidence would suggest not.

Yet Singapore is preventing these positions from being filled due to pressure and supposed anger from “ordinary Singaporeans” to foreign workers supposedly taking their jobs and using their facilities.

Given the chance though it appears that Singaporeans don’t actually want these jobs either which in turn leaves these jobs unfilled. This leaves the companies effected trying to fill them feeling frustrated and unable to service guests.

This ironically means that when Singaporeans come along to that same effected hotel or café or restaurant  the service level is poor as a direct result of potentially the same Singaporeans complaining about foreigners coming in to take these jobs!

A classic case of cutting of your nose to spite your face?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Michael Ma, Group CEO of Indochine Wine and Bar recently said in The Business Times “the F&B industry is plagued by a lack of quality and quantity of service staff… Local Singaporeans do not want to work as waiters because many of them spend years in higher education. But we are not able to employ foreigners because of the ratio quota. As Singapore is developing as an international gourmet destination we need to focus on not just the food but the whole experience. Service is an integral part of this.”

Royal Plaza on Scotts GM Patrick Fiat also complained  that the legislation decreasing foreigner quotas was “very painful and meant that people have to wait longer to check out and to be served in F&B outlets. We place adverts in papers trying to hire Singaporeans and no one turns up” he complained, not an uncommon point among GM’s and recruiting directors in Singapore.

“Singaporeans are not keen on F&B jobs and front desk jobs” added Kevin Ong, GM of the Rendezvous Hotel. “This has an indirect impact on revenue and profit as due to lack of manpower we might not be able to provide the service that our guests have come to expect. If they are disappointed we lose a customer.”

Andrew Tan, GM of Orchard Hotel added “Singaporeans don’t fill these positions which leave us short once the foreign quota is full”.

The Business Times, where these quotes came from, is full of stories like this every day.

In my own job I meet senior directors and business owners and they tell me the same story, here are two such examples from many.

An SME company in the service sector who didn’t wish to be named, is half foreign owned, half Singaporean and cannot recruit Singaporeans for the lower level or higher level jobs because 1) they are not qualified, 2) they do not want to be taught 3) they expect to be given a manager title, 3) they expect a massive salary and 4) they consistently go on MNC and complain about stress of the job and then leave according to the Singaporean MD.

The company wants to open other branches but are unable because they can’t rely on getting a reliable and realistic workforce who are willing to learn the ropes and do the menial jobs to start with and work their way up.

“They all want to be manager level earning a fortune but without experience” the MD summarised.

An MNC in the F&B sector which is Singaporean owned and run here the Singaporean GM has been hamstrung by not being able to employ more foreigners. Employees are usually paid 2k a month which is acceptable to foreigners but not Singaporeans.

However the GM has used up his quota of foreigners and cannot get any Singaporeans to start at a low level on a low wage and work their way up, they all want to be managers immediately and paid double that of foreigners he says.

Therefore the employer has the choice of employing foreigners at 4k (as that’s beyond the lower level employment pass quotas and into the next bracket with still no guarantee that passes will be approved) or employing Singaporeans at that level who are less qualified and less able says the GM.

The problem he said of employing Singaporeans, (and this was coming from a Singaporean with Singaporean sons), “is that they start, then they go on MC, then they complain about the work, they get stressed, they want more money and a higher position and then they leave...”

So what happens? The company can’t grow and can’t expand in Singapore because they can’t rely on getting a reliable and realistic Singaporean workforce. Or they employ less effective people on higher salaries which ultimately means that the consumer has to pay more for their products to pay this person but they give worse service. 

But it is service by an inexperienced Singaporean or not be served at all. Either way the consumer loses out.

The foreign workers on W passes live in dorms and are not a threat to any Singaporeans way of life. They are mostly construction workers and don’t use the MRT in general. If S pass workers who were waitresses and hotel staff also lived in dorms and didn’t use the MRT would Singaporeans mind if they didn’t have to live next to them in HDB’s?

Is that an opportunity for Capitaland and the like to build special S worker dorms that were a higher standard than the W worker dorms? Would Singaporeans approve of this or is it just further segregation?

Do Singaporeans connect these two issues? Complain about foreigners taking jobs but then also complain about poor service at their favourite F&B outlet/hotel and not see that the two are intrinsically connected? Do they realise that, to use a European phrase, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

In my view though foreigners do not take Singaporean jobs. It’s is a myth.

Everyone competes and the best person is employed. That principle has never changed and in fact in some pure Singaporean firms I know of have always had a policy of Singaporeans first which I not only understand, I respect.

I would like Newcastle United to be full of Geordie stars but that isn’t going to happen…or at least if it did they would not be in the Premiership for long…

I digress but it’s the same principle and one not based on the reality of the situation.

Secondly the facilities being used by all are being funded all…and ironically probably more so by more affluent foreigners coming in and paying the higher taxes whether income tax or GST by spending more on going out for example. So that is another myth.

Several of the above Singaporean directors said it’s all because every young Singaporean has a degree. As everyone has a degree they all expect to go into jobs at a certain management level with a certain salary and will not even think about starting at a lower level to learn the ropes and progress that way.

This means that middle management is over catered for and lower level service staff and junior employees are non-existent.

This was backed up by a call from the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) who said the same thing this week. Singapore is turning into a white collar producing society but there aren’t enough white collar jobs to go around whereas there are too many blue collar jobs which remained unfilled.

 Someone has to fill this gap and the only ones who want these “lower level” jobs are foreigners.

Companies always want to grow; it’s in the nature of any company and the expectation of their shareholders. Being restricted just means that companies will not locate here and Singapore the country and Singaporeans will lose out.

GST and taxes come from these companies, less of them employing less people means less of both…The front page of the Business Times headlines that foreign companies are leaving as a direct result of this.

Nine foreign chambers of commerce have also written to MOM complaining about the restrictions on employing foreign workers of all kinds as their members are telling them that they can’t fill jobs and therefore can’t fulfil contracts.

Who loses out when foreign companies move abroad? Ultimately Singaporeans of all kinds do. Less jobs to apply for and less taxes are collected for the infrastructure building.

Singapore is keen to promote technology and innovation in the workplace as being the answer to the squeeze on employing foreigners but that overlooks several things: 1) not all experiences can be replicated with technology especially in the personal service sector such as F&B and hospitality and 2) getting people to work longer hours is no answer as their effectiveness decreases.  

Interestingly I did read a comment by one of the Singaporean employment ministers who said that compared with European service staff Singaporean service staff had a huge amount to learn about productivity.

Surely if that were true Singaporeans could learn from foreigners and become better than them through training and being mentored rather than cutting the foreigner out and losing that experience and that labour resource?

I would love to hear your views. Do Singaporeans object to all foreign workers or just those in white collar jobs? If foreign workers filled more of the service sectors/F&B/hospitality jobs that are not using the MRT at the same times as office workers for example would that make them happier?

The HDB issue is hard to resolve, people need somewhere to live and if they are contributing to society, paying taxes and working for a living why can’t a foreigner live in an HDB? Do they all have to live in Condos/Dorms? Or is there a case for a premium version of the current W pass holder dorms?

This doesn’t answer the problem of foreign workers in white collar jobs which I have talked about before in my blog on experience vs qualifications but it would go a long way to easing the problems in the F&B industry if restrictions were eased which in turn would actually mean a better quality of service for Singaporeans frequenting bars, restaurants and hotels in the country which would in turn benefit these companies revenues and profits.

At the moment the situation seems counter-productive but that’s just my personal view, what do you think?

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