Singapore to temporarily relax foreign worker hiring rules: MOM

THE Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is temporarily lifting some work permit renewal and other conditions to ease the labour crunch in the construction, marine shipyard and process (CMP) sectors amid Covid-19 border closures.

Experienced construction workers whose work permits have been terminated will also be given a 30-day window to find new jobs - rather than being immediately repatriated - under a new scheme supported by the Singapore Contractors Association Ltd (SCAL).

Said the MOM in a press statement: "The CMP sectors play key roles in Singapore's economy, and government agencies have been working closely with the CMP sectors to transform their business, reduce manpower reliance and build up their resilience."

But industry transformation efforts "do take some time", Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said on Friday. "And, at the same time, the CMP sectors continue to face significant manpower shortages as a result of tighter border restrictions."

Under the latest measures, CMP workers whose work permits expire between July and December 2021 can renew their permits for up to two years, even if they do not meet the renewal criteria such as the caps on employment period or employment age.

All CMP companies will be given a waiver of the usual requirement to have at least 10 per cent of their work permit workforce be higher-skilled workers.

Companies in the construction and process sectors have also been excused from a minimum work experience requirement for hiring work permit holders from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Philippines and mainland China.

The man-year entitlement, which indicates how many of these work permit holders can be employed, can already be waived for workers with working experience in Singapore. But there will be no such minimum period from Oct 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022.

Meanwhile, all work passes in the CMP sectors - including higher-skilled S Passes and Employment Passes - will get in-principle approval for validity extensions if the pass holders cannot enter Singapore because of Covid-19 border restrictions.

There is an automatic six-month extension from July 1, with the possibility of extensions of up to six more months, which the MOM said "will provide affected employers sufficient time to bring in their work pass holders for their business needs".

SCAL president Ng Yek Meng said that the new SCAL Retention Scheme - which will see the association foot the bill for foreign workers' room, board and routine Covid-19 testing during the 30-day transfer window - "is to help to retain as many workers as possible in our construction sector".

"If these workers are willing to stay in Singapore, their names and their jobs, their abilities, will be kept in our manpower exchange and we will job-match them with some of the employers that are willing to hire them," Mr Ng noted.

"Nevertheless, in the longer term, I seriously urge all firms and I earnestly hope that all of them would continue to transform their businesses, to reduce their manpower reliance through tapping technology and redesigning the jobs to attract more locals to join them," said Dr Tan, who addressed the media on the sidelines of a visit to local builder Straits Construction.

When asked why measures are being rolled out only now, Dr Tan said the authorities' initial focus was on containing the virus and ensuring workers' well-being during a widespread outbreak in foreign worker housing in 2020.

With Singapore now working towards an endemic Covid-19 situation and achieving a higher level of vaccination, "we are now able to more confidently try to see how we can calibrate" the transfer of workers, he told the press.

"After all of the work that we have done, rather than let them go back - only for them to apply and come back and start the whole process again - we thought that it would be more productive if we can work with the industry… This is not an afterthought, it is an entire progression."

The latest moves build on earlier efforts by SCAL, the Association of Singapore Marine Industries and the Association of Process Industry to bring in foreign workers from Malaysia and India into the country, under a pilot initiative that began in June.

Construction companies can also bring in Chinese work permit holders who have not yet obtained the necessary skill certifications, under a six-month scheme from May. That's as Singapore continues to uphold an indefinite ban on arrivals from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Separately, work permit or S Pass holders in the CMP sectors can skip the 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) isolation period upon arrival in Singapore, if they had spent the past 21 days in Brunei, New Zealand, Taiwan, or mainland China outside of Jiangsu.

Otherwise, they can serve a shorter seven-day SHN in hotels or residences - rather than SHN-dedicated facilities - if they were in Hong Kong, Macau or Jiangsu province.

The industry workforce has shrunk over the years - Singapore employed 311,000 work permit holders in the CMP sectors as at end-2020, down from 423,300 at end-2015.

Work permit holders in these sectors are allowed to hail only from selected source countries or regions, such as Malaysia, mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Philippines.

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