Businesses face labour squeeze in festive season

Crowds shopping for Chinese New Year goods at the Chinatown bazaar yesterday. Businesses such as Chinese restaurants are pulling out the stops for customers during this festive season, which is the busiest time of the year. Many are getting staff to
Crowds shopping for Chinese New Year goods at the Chinatown bazaar yesterday. Businesses such as Chinese restaurants are pulling out the stops for customers during this festive season, which is the busiest time of the year. Many are getting staff to put in over-time and roping in part-time workers, friends and family.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

It is the festive season's busiest period, yet Ms Olivia Lim has closed her bakery for two weeks.

Behind My Lovebites' shutters, the 37-year-old and her mother pound dough for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, to fill a long list of Chinese New Year orders.

"I've tried looking for help, but can't find anyone suitable," said Ms Lim, who opened her Joo Chiat Road store in 2011. "We closed temporarily so we didn't have to worry about walk-in orders."

She is not alone.

Business owners have been increasing part-time pay, getting staff to put in over-time, and even roping in family and friends to solve the manpower squeeze.

While curbs on foreign labour in recent years have already led to a tight labour market, the crunch gets worse around Chinese New Year. That is because it harder for businesses to hire students for part-time work, since many go back to school after their December holidays.

According to labour statistics, those aged between 15 and 24 formed 15 per cent of the part-time workforce in 2012.

"For my Christmas orders, I had two culinary students from Temasek Polytechnic working part-time," Ms Lim said. "But not for Chinese New Year."

Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS) president Andrew Tjioe believes the current labour crunch is even worse than last year, with firms offering higher pay now for temp staff. He said that the rates are now $18 to $22 an hour, compared to $15 to $20 last year.

Despite the manpower shortage, popular Chinese restaurants still pull out the stops for customers at the busiest time of the year.

At Orchard Hotel Singapore, home to Hua Ting Restaurant and Orchard Cafe, additional chefs and food runners have been hired. Even staff from the housekeeping department will take on additional roles and help to interact with guests and distribute goodies, said general manager Riaz Mahmood.

He admitted that contract workers are getting more expensive to hire year on year, but the hotel is doing its best not to pass on the extra costs to guests. At Hua Ting, for example, menu prices have not gone up, he said.

Added RAS' Mr Tjioe: "This is the time you don't want to make people unhappy."

It is not just the food and beverage industry which has to cope. Retailers also told The Sunday Times that they need to boost their workforce by an extra 10 per cent to 20 per cent during the festive period.

While Isetan was able to hire some contract workers on its own, it had to turn to recruitment agencies for assistance as the numbers were not enough, said a spokesman.

A Takashimaya Department Store spokesman also said the hourly rate and overtime pay for temporary staff had to be increased from last year.

The owners of some small firms providing Chinese New Year goodies and hampers get around the labour shortage by putting in extra hours themselves.

Crusty Oven bakery owner Markas Aw, who starts work at 7.30am, has been staying till after midnight three or four days a week during this period to keep up with orders.

He does not hire temporary staff because he wants to ensure the quality of his products is kept to a certain standard. "If they are inexperienced, I would have to teach them from scratch," he said.

Others turn to friends and family. "We're roping in my aunties to help," said Ms Jaclyn Lim, owner of floral shop The Bloom Room, who is juggling Chinese New Year and wedding orders."I have no social life, but at least it's fun to work with the family.

"Still I don't think I can rely on them much longer - we'll need more proper staff."

 

 

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