Why foreign workers get less rest in Singapore

by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBNNews.com

Posted at Apr 01 2014 11:25 PM | Updated as of Apr 02 2014 07:34 AM

SINGAPORE – Tightening of immigration policies have led to manpower shortage that had foreigners working overtime and getting fewer rest days in Singapore.

The complaint may sound like a familiar refrain among the workers. But employers – especially small and medium enterprises reliant on manual labor – are beginning to see problems of high manpower turnovers and the big cost of doing business in this city-state as a result.

Immigration issues are not high up on the agenda for the state visit to the Philippines of President Tony Tan Keng Yam beginning April 2.

Tan is expected to discuss defense, trade and investment with President Benigno Aquino. But some Filipino workers in Singapore are hopeful there would be space for discussion on immigration policies they said have been making life beyond difficult for workers in a foreign land.

Restaurant manager "Ella" has been in Singapore for three years now. She traded this job with another in Dubai because the pay here for the same rank amounted to thrice what is being paid in Dubai: P65,000 to P80,000 here compared to Dubai’s P20,000 to P25,000.

But the bigger pay she chose here is making her do the job of a regular crew: she "mans" the counter, accepts orders, prepares food.

Ella, 29, and a native of a suburban enclave in southern Manila, holds an "S-Pass," an employment pass given middle-level employees. She knows some Filipinos who have arrived in Singapore, were cleared by employers as having complied with all requirements, but have been rejected – denied pass – by the Ministry of Manpower.

In February 2012, the Ministry of Manpower said on its site, “the Government will introduce further measures to moderate the increasing dependence on foreign manpower which has grown by 7.5% per annum over the last two years.” This translated into the "quota," formally called Dependency Ratio Ceilings allowed for foreign workers being hired in companies, to be reduced.

The policy change was brought about by politically charged complaints against too much foreign labor that allegedly have been robbing locals of employment opportunities, crowding out trains and buses, and even making too much noise.

Further restrictions were made beginning July 2013: increase in qualifying salaries for S-Passes from SG$2,000 to SG$2,200; progressive increase in levy rates for S-Pass and work permit holders; and change in monthly salary threshold from SG$850 to SG$1,000 for locals to be considered full-time employees.

Paul, another manager in the food and beverage business, bewails the practice.

The 39-year-old from the northern Philippines remembers how easy it was for him to get work here five years ago. He came here as a tourist, applied in a company, got accepted, went back to the Philippines to pick up his clothes and belongings. He left his wife, and their 3 children who are now in grade school and high school.

“’Underpowered’ kami, kaya ang manager, gumagawa rin (We are ‘underpowered’. The managers have to work as well),” Paul said, explaining why he had problems securing a rest day – something he is supposed to get eight monthly.

Paul concedes the problem may not be altogether remedied by the government, as private companies would tend to have their way and enforce their own rules, seeking only concurrence from their employees.

Yet, these problems are borne of government-imposed restrictions that may “sometimes be unfair,” he added.

Many companies like the one he works for, Paul said, are in a dilemma: how to fill up the manpower void left by locals unwilling to do blue-collar work, under immigration rules that discourage employment of foreign laborers.

Apparently, it is not just foreign migrant workers now feeling the pinch of the immigration restriction.

Norman Mah, director of Spice Village, traces his family business’s foray into catering from the need to maximize resources and to make cheaper assets more hard-working.

“We are focusing on catering… No one wants to go into these businesses any longer because it’s very laborious. We need a lot of manual labor,” Mah said.

Mah’s family, originally in the business of producing mackerel-made "otah" fish paste, has gone into catering in 2004. During this time they moved their business from a shop house in Joo Chiat to a Bedok industrial food hub as the Singaporean government encouraged relocation of factories out of residential areas.

Businesses in hubs like these are subsidized when they launch efforts to automate; Mah said government reimburses expenses for computers and CCTV cameras.

Yet the lion’s share of doing business goes to logistics and manpower. Mah spends about SG$12,000 monthly on his three facilities in the hub. Since his businesses require costly foreign workers, he is also forced to keep his operation team lean at 39 people, two of them Filipinos.

“Sad to say, most of them (staff at Spice Village) are foreigners. They tend to work much faster than the locals… You really have to multitask. One person might be doing 2 or 3 persons’ job. That’s the only way to survive, how to overcome shortage of labor, and the high cost,” Mah said.

Paul, meanwhile, said he hopes plights such as his and of his fellow Filipino workers would find space somehow in the Philippine-Singapore summit beginning Wednesday.

Life may be hard for Filipino workers in Singapore, but he does not see the entry of foreign workers halting anytime soon. The jobs that these workers do are simply too hard: “They (many Singaporeans) cannot take this. Mahirap. Ma-stress. Physically demanding.”

(The author is an ABS-CBN journalist and currently a 2014 Fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.)