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Parliament: Tighter rules to support Singaporeans and raise quality of foreign workforce

[SINGAPORE] Rules on the hiring of foreign workers are being tightened, as part of government efforts to ensure that the quality of the workforce improves.

For one thing, more companies will have to give Singaporeans a chance to apply for higher-skilled jobs by advertising these on the national Jobs Bank for at least 14 days before they can hire a foreigner for the role.

Under the Fair Consideration Framework, this rule applied to companies with more than 25 workers and for jobs paying a fixed monthly salary of less than S$12,000 a month. From July 1, it will be extended to cover companies with at least 10 workers and for jobs paying less than S$15,000 a month, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Monday.

This is part of efforts to ensure Singaporeans have access to good jobs, and to raise the quality of foreigners working here, he said.

"With slower manpower growth, we need to maximise the potential of our two-thirds local, one-third foreign (workforce), so that together, we can maximise the potential of our total Singapore workforce," he said, during the debate on his ministry's budget.

Eight MPs, including Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), Mr Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) and Nominated MP Thomas Chua, had asked about government efforts to ensure that locals and foreigners here can work together well.

Mr Lim said the Government tightened the criteria for Employment Passes (EPs) in 2014 and 2017, resulting in slower growth in the number of EP holders approved each year, to an average of 3,000 a year in the past three years, down from a peak of 32,000 in 2011.

This is to calibrate the growth of EP holders, and enhance their overall quality, he said, adding that about 50,000 new EPs were given each year over the past three years.

Raising the quality of the local and foreign workers here is crucial as the growth of workforce has slowed significantly, so strong productivity growth will be needed to drive economic growth.

"Probably one of the most critical challenges is to ensure that slower growth of our Singapore workforce will not become the bottleneck in the future growth of our Singapore economy," said Mr Lim.

The workforce of about 3.4 million people currently comprises 2.3 million Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, making up about two-thirds of the workforce, and 1.1 million foreigners.

From 2015 to 2017, compared with the previous three years, net job growth slowed from over 100,000 a year, to less than 10,000 a year on average. Retrenchments and the unemployment rate for residents both went up.

Mr Lim noted that local employment growth has improved, but said the average net job growth of less than 10,000 a year in past three years is "not high enough".

It needs to be around 25,000 to 40,000 a year to provide enough jobs for the workforce of 3.4 million, growing at about 1 per cent per year, he said.

In addition, to compete on the innovation and technology front, more is being done to train up locals in "global capabilities", said Mr Lim.

Other changes to foreign worker policies are the raising of the minimum S Pass salary to keep pace with rising wages. From Jan 1 next year, the minimum qualifying salary will be raised to S$2,300, up from S$2,200. From Jan 1,2020, it will be raised to S$2,400.

The last adjustment was in 2013, and there will be a transition period over the next two years to help existing S Pass holders and employers adjust.

To encourage companies to develop their Work Permit holders and raise their productivity, the ministry is also extending by four years the maximum period such staff can work in Singapore, with effect from May 1 this year. This applies to workers from certain countries like China, Bangladesh, India and Thailand.

Mr Lim added that there will be no further tightening of the number of Work Permit holders for now.