Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged to tighten restrictions on foreign workers, tackling an issue that has stirred anger in the traditionally open city-state as it recovers from a pandemic-induced recession.
In a key policy speech during a national day rally on Sunday night, Lee said his government will further raise the visa criteria for expatriates, increase salaries for low-income laborers and hold companies to account for their hiring practices. Changes to the salary criteria for overseas workers would be done “gradually and progressively” to show that Singapore wants to keep policies outward-looking to accept competition, he added.
“We have to acknowledge the problem, so we can address Singaporeans’ legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners,” Lee said. “Only thus can Singapore remain open, and continue to grow and progress,” he added.
Lee said it was imperative for the country to reopen to the world after largely shutting its borders early last year, just as it reached a milestone to fully vaccinate 80% of its population — outpacing most advanced economies.
Foreign labor was a hot-button topic in last year’s elections due to the perception of unfair hiring practices against locals and still-low wages for blue-collar workers facing rising costs and a pandemic that led to the country’s worst-ever economic slump.
The discontent played a big part in leading the ruling People’s Action Party to its weakest-ever showing in a July 2020 election. A month later, the government raised the minimum qualifying salaries for employment pass holders — in managerial or specialized roles as well as the financial services sector — and for those with “S Pass,” or mid-level technical staff.
Lee said there were often complaints over the hiring practices in the tech and financial sector. He noted, however, that these companies are regionally and globally focused and the skills required for the roles are in short supply.
“Had we not allowed them to import the EPs they needed, the companies would not have come here, and Singaporeans would have had fewer opportunities,” Lee said in reference to the coveted employment passes for foreign workers.
Nevertheless, Lee said the focus will be on hiring practices, with the government planning to pass anti-discrimination laws for the workplace that can carry penalties. It also intends to set up a tribunal to protect workers against “discrimination based on nationality” among other unfair employment practices based on gender, religion and race.
“This will give them more teeth, and expand the range of actions we can take,” Lee said of the anti-discrimination guidelines. Until now “the government has held back, because we did not want the process to become legalistic or confrontational.”
Lee also unveiled other measures to ensure higher salaries for Singaporeans. Companies employing foreigners will now need to pay all their local staff a qualifying salary of at least 1,400 Singapore dollars ($1,040) a month, compared to earlier rules stipulating that the number of locals getting such a salary depended on how many foreign workers were employed.
The premier also focused on low-wage workers, saying Singapore must offer more protections for the group that has been on the front-lines since the start of the pandemic, delivering food, employed as cleaners or working security.
Most of these workers, which number about half a million, don’t pay taxes and have, instead, gotten salary top-ups and pension contributions from the government. Such payments to these workers cost about 850 million Singapore dollars yearly, and Lee said the government will raise annual contributions to 1.1 billion Singapore dollars in two years.
Lee took aim at food delivery apps linked to Delivery Hero SE’s Foodpanda, Grab Holdings Inc. and Deliveroo PLC, saying he was “especially concerned” with their delivery workers who have no employment contracts, lack basic job protections and earn modest incomes that make it difficult to afford housing, healthcare and retirement.
“More people are taking up this type of work, so this problem is growing,” Lee said, adding that the manpower ministry was studying the issue. “We must address the issues to give these workers more secure futures.”
Lee devoted a significant part of his speech to racial harmony, noting that there have been racist incidents that have gone viral on social media and specifically targeted Indians — both foreigners and local. He said these could have been sparked by the fact that a large number of foreign workers are from India and the delta variant of COVID-19 first emerged in the South Asian subcontinent.
“We must address the real issues: manage the work pass numbers and concentrations, and improve border health safeguards,” Lee said.
The government will introduce new legislation on racial harmony that will combine all the existing powers to deal with such issues. Currently Singapore relies on the colonial-era sedition act to deal with serious offenses involving hate crimes or racial enmity, which critics in the past have said were used to suppress dissent.
Lee said there will be “softer, gentler touches,” including laws to order someone who caused racial offense to stop doing it and make amends by learning about the other races and mending ties.
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