Lee Hsien Loong addresses the controversial foreign worker debate amidst the pandemic
In his latest parliament address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressed the recent heated debates around the issue of foreign workers.
He found Singaporeans’ raised anxieties over job security and sense of competition with foreign professionals “completely understandable” given the economic downturn.
Despite the perception of bias, he assured that the reality was that the number of employment pass (EP) and S Pass employees “have come down” since COVID-19.
Some employees feel unfairly treated when they see foreigners replacing them or taking up good jobs ahead of them, he said, adding that these feelings are understandable.
He added that the country would be overwhelmed without tight controls, and foreign worker policies have helped to control the inflow and ultimately ensure that the foreign workers who do come in add to the workforce in Singapore, rather than substitute locals.
This is why they’ve recently made foreign worker policy changes to reflect the current market conditions. He said the government will continue to make changes “at the right pace” as part of a long-term strategy.
“Adjustments to the work pass schemes must still be made because there is now more slack in the job market and also because over time, the education levels, capabilities and incomes of our local workforce have risen,” Lee said.
“More Singaporeans are now available and ready to take up PMET jobs and more have done so, with the proportion of PMETs in the workforce growing steadily from 40% 20 years ago to almost 60% today.”
Discrimination is ‘personal’
While policy changes help employers strike a balance of skills and expertise at work, the prime minister understands that unfair treatment is a “personal” experience.
For employees, he acknowledged that Singaporeans are concerned about fair treatment in terms of jobs, promotions and retrenchments.
“There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace,” he said. “Or that the EP holder working beside us somehow has an inside track because of old-school ties or some other personal connections.”
He said that one specific “red flag” is when a company has an over-concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially when compared with other companies in the same sector.
This concentration, if left unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems and make it harder for the company to blend into Singapore’s multiracial society, he said.
“Within the company, employees of other nationalities, including Singaporeans, may find it harder to fit in, to take pride in their work and see a future for themselves in the firm,” he said.
When that happens, the authorities will ask the firm to relook their hiring practices.
Most companies are responsive, he noted, adding that many global firms understand that a diverse workforce is to their advantage and have explicit HR policies on this.
Guidelines on fair employment
He added that guidelines are in place for fair and progressive employment practices, with channels for employees to complain to, such as TAFEP.
There are also plans to further tighten the Fair Consideration Framework.
Additionally, there are efforts to ensure retrenchments remain fair and that employers avoid retrenching Singaporean staffer simply to fill the role with a foreigner “without very good justification”.
“The government takes this issue of fairness very seriously,” he said.
“But we particularly want to emphasise these considerations now in these uncertain times to remind all employers to play their part in building up their Singaporean workforce.”