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Sharp lines drawn over foreign manpower

SINGAPORE — Manpower needs of companies and the Workers’ Party’s (WP) labour force proposals were intensely debated in Parliament yesterday as members wrestled with the twin struggles of keeping Singapore attractive to businesses and the need to curb the inflow of foreign manpower.

The Singapore Business Federation is concerned about the constraints on businesses and hopes for a delay in slowing down workforce growth. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The Singapore Business Federation is concerned about the constraints on businesses and hopes for a delay in slowing down workforce growth. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE — Manpower needs of companies and the Workers’ Party’s (WP) labour force proposals were intensely debated in Parliament yesterday as members wrestled with the twin struggles of keeping Singapore attractive to businesses and the need to curb the inflow of foreign manpower.

Those from the business community vigorously voiced the importance of keeping an open immigration policy — albeit at a slower pace as projected in the White Paper on population — in order for companies to sustain and grow.

They pointed to an open letter written on Monday by nine foreign chambers of commerce here to Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, about the need for certainty to employ candidates with the right skills and the ability to tap into a larger workforce than is available here.

This was in contrast to the WP Members of Parliament (MPs), whose stance was zero foreign labour growth until 2020, if the resident labour force can grow by 1 per cent and productivity by 2 to 3 per cent per annum.

The Opposition party’s proposal to tap the economically inactive — such as housewives, foreign spouses of Singaporeans and the elderly — was scrutinised by three Cabinet Ministers and several People’s Action Party MPs, who repeatedly pressed Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam on how the party seeks to achieve its targets.

How would the WP propose increasing the labour force participation rate, Mr Tan asked, noting concurrent measures already in place to ramp up productivity and schemes such as the Special Employment Credit, which incentivises hiring of older workers.

Would the WP still advocate zero growth in foreign labour if it means construction and other sectors are unable to hire Singaporeans for the job, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office S Iswaran asked.

Would the WP award citizenship to foreign spouses of Singaporeans, questioned Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Grace Fu.

Minister of State (Manpower) Amy Khor also said that, by curbing immigration or workforce growth, the WP’s proposal could ironically hurt Singaporeans — the very group that it is intended to help — as it could lead to companies folding or moving out of Singapore, while others will not be attracted to set up shop here.

In his speech, Mr Chen had remarked that, according to the White Paper, “population growth has to be sustained to feed into a dynamic economy like so many pieces of coal into the furnace to drive the Orient Express”.

He suggested removing age discrimination in workplaces and deploying older Singaporeans in schools to teach national education and social studies. He told Mr Tan that more resources could be channelled to help more elderly to work.

Replying to Mr Iswaran, Mr Giam said he believed Singaporeans could be attracted to various sectors “if wages are raised and if there’s proper retraining (for) workers”.

Current foreign workforce numbers could be maintained, with new work passes issued to replace those that expire or to supplement shortfalls in the local labour force, he said.

Businesses benefit, but workers suffer: NCMP

Mr Giam had said in his speech that with a larger population, businesses benefit from a larger pool of customers, but “ordinary citizens” bear negative effects like overcrowding.

Singapore’s gross domestic product growth in the last decade has been driven by mainly labour inputs, with benefits “accruing to company profits instead of workers’ wages”. In 2011, 42.3 per cent of Singapore’s GDP went to wages, lower than Australia (47.5 per cent) and the European Union (49.2 per cent), he said.

He told Ms Fu that the WP believes in room for up to 10,000 new citizens per year up until 2020. Beyond that, it would see if Singapore’s total fertility rate had increased. But the WP’s stance of turning off the tap to further inflow of foreign workers drew sharp criticism from PAP MPs Inderjit Singh, Jessica Tan and Vikram Nair.

Allowing some immigration allows some high-value companies to set up shop here, said Mr Nair. A high-precision firm could rely more on foreign labour in its early years before scaling back in favour of Singaporeans, for instance. There is no benefit of hindsight when it comes to immigration and decisions have to be made on a day-to-day basis, said Mr Nair.

“You don’t have the benefit of hindsight to say at the end of the year, okay, I didn’t hit my 1 per cent growth (in resident workforce), therefore I will let immigrants in,” he said.

“If you shut off the tap now, assuming you’ll get the 1 per cent growth, you’ll paralyse the new building (under construction), you’ll prevent new businesses that require special skills to start, and you will kill all the small and medium enterprises.”

Mr Singh said that the WP’s proposal is “not going to accelerate restructuring, it’s going to kill companies”, who are already suffering with reduced foreign labour growth rates.

But Mr Singh had equally strong words for the Government.

He called for a “breather from our relentless drive for growth” and for focus on improving the lives of Singaporeans “before we plan our next growth trajectory”.

“I don’t think we can live with a 6.9 million population by 2030. We may be able to handle it in 2050, no one really knows,” he said. “Adding another 500,000 to 800,000 more Permanent Residents and citizens as proposed in the White Paper will be disastrous, in my opinion, and add to our already difficult infrastructure and social problems.”

He suggested that PR youths be made to do National Service and study in public schools, and for reconsideration of the dependents policy, among other measures. Mr Singh added that aggressive growth strategies have depressed wage levels of “many Singaporeans” — his starting salary as an engineer was S$1,900 in 1985; today, entry-level engineers earn S$2,600. But cost of living and HDB flat prices have outstripped salary increases, he said. “If we fail to instil a sense of hope and opportunity for our future generations, we will not be able to root them here and build a strong national identity and a strong nation,” said Mr Singh.

Issuing a statement last night, the Singapore Business Federation said that it was concerned over calls in Parliament to further cut workforce growth.

Alluding to the WP’s proposal, it added that with no growth in the number of foreign workers, “the impact on the economy and Singapore’s competitiveness would be disastrous. The livelihood and well-being of Singaporeans will be compromised.”

Posting on his Facebook page last night, Mr Tan said he had a discussion with Mr Giam on WP’s suggestions and ideas after the Parliament session.

He added: “I think there are common perspectives on some issues whilst differing approach on others. Some differences lie more with degree rather than trajectory.”

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