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Chinese work permit holders in manufacturing, services can switch bosses to ease virus-related labour crunch

WORK permit holders from China who are already in Singapore can switch jobs without having to leave the country, in a move that businesses had called for earlier this month at a meeting with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

With businesses in Singapore hit by the staggered return of workers from mainland China - where the deadly Covid-19 epidemic now sweeping the globe began - Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the measure "will plug a gap, and we hope that this is also a practical, tangible way in which we can help businesses manage the current situation".

Under the temporary initiative unveiled by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Tuesday, companies in the manufacturing and services industries will be able to hire these workers, with their consent and the agreement of their employers. This expands on a similar policy that is already in place for the construction, process and marine sectors.

Chinese work permit holders will be able to switch companies within the sector that they are in, for six months from next Monday, as the requirement for them to first leave the country is lifted. Work permit holders from Malaysia are already able to do so.

WIN-WIN SITUATION

Singapore Business Federation (SBF) chairman Teo Siong Seng had said after a closed-door session with Mr Chan on Feb 14 that some players in the services sector hope they will be allowed to bring workers in from "non-traditional" markets. He also asked for more flexibility to let work pass holders be re-employed at new workplaces without having to first return home.

With the latest tweak, companies will get "more flexibility to manage their manpower needs," the MOM said in a statement.

"Companies facing a shortage of manpower can save on search and recruitment expenses. At the same time, companies that have exceeded manpower can provide their workers with an opportunity to continue working in Singapore and save on repatriation costs."

Remarking that some companies are sitting on excess manpower given the drop in business volumes, while other employers have a manpower shortage, Mrs Teo said that the latest measure arose from conversations with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and the Singapore National Employers Federation.

Foreign workers unable to return to China, or who are still paying off loans and want to continue working here, can also benefit from the move, noted NTUC assistant director-general Yeo Guat Kwang, who heads its small- and medium-sized enterprise arm.

"The flexibility of this temporary measure will therefore help our companies to manage their cost and manpower issues," he added.

Transfers of workers will be arranged and facilitated by the SBF, whose chief executive Ho Meng Kit called the scheme "a practical and timely initiative".

COORDINATED EFFORTS

Mrs Teo also pointed to other "commendable" efforts that companies and workers have taken in this crisis, such as notifying customers of potential delays, cross-deploying staff, and overtime.

She was at lorry crane distributor Wong Fong Engineering, a land transport engineering company that serves industries such as logistics, construction and waste management.

With Wong Fong hiring mainly from China and Malaysia, the travel curbs have eaten into the availability of skilled labour, according to group finance director Jack Wong. The company has about a dozen workers who are still in China, out of a headcount of close to 300 employees.

Wong Fong also runs an academy offering safety and orientation courses to new workers, but with an ongoing freeze on the issue of fresh work permits to Chinese nationals, its classes are now filled instead with trainees from other countries such as Thailand and Myanmar.

When asked if the global spread of the respiratory disease could lead to restrictions on workers from more countries, Mrs Teo said that "we act on a whole-of-government basis".

She added: "Of course, you know, if the measures are extended, MOM also has to look at what appropriate actions ought to be taken on the work pass holders front."

Soon after Mrs Teo's remarks, her ministry announced that any work pass holders who have been to South Korea's virus-hit Daegu city or Cheongdo county in the last fortnight must get approval from the MOM before they enter Singapore, regardless of nationality.

MOST STILL ABROAD

Mrs Teo had told the press in early February that some 30,000 work pass holders from China left over Chinese New Year and had yet to return, with an MOM spokesman later adding that "the impact on manufacturing is higher than for construction or services sectors".

The delay in the return of workers from China hit about one-tenth of the factory workforce, Singapore Manufacturing Federation president Douglas Foo earlier told The Business Times.

The MOM is now approving an average of 220 applications to return each day, the ministry said in an update this week. The "vast majority" remain abroad, Mrs Teo said on Tuesday.

Priority is being given to staff in essential operations such as healthcare, transport and waste management, although an unspecified number from other industries have also come back.

Returning Chinese workers and their employers have to get the green light from the MOM before they can re-enter Singapore; the workers must then stay at home for 14 days.

Work pass holders who have been in Daegu or Cheongdo will now also be put on a mandatory 14-day stay-home notice, from Thursday onwards.

Labourers who flout these public health regulations risk deportation, while their employers face penalties such as having their ability to hire foreign manpower suspended.