Job prospects for ex-offenders on the cusp of returning to the workforce are looking brighter.
Former prison inmates are commanding higher pay and staying longer in their jobs now, according to data released to The Straits Times by the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score), which trains and matches ex-convicts to employers.
Last year, 34 per cent of the 2,123 ex-offenders it placed earned about $1,300. In 2011, only 8 per cent took home that amount. Some 16 per cent drew a salary above $1,500, compared with 5 per cent in 2011.
Not only has their starting pay risen, more are able to hold on to their jobs. Last year, about 60 per cent of the former convicts retained their jobs for at least half a year, compared to 37 per cent who manage to do so in 2007.
The prisons release about 9,000 inmates a year, more than half of them would have served short sentences of less than a year. A statutory board under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Score works mostly with those who have served a longer jail term as they are likely to need more help in adjustment and support.
Things are also looking up for the ex-offenders because a criminal past seems to matter less now, with more employers lining up to hire them. About 4,145 employers are registered with Score now, up from 2,459 in 2010.
This is good news as keeping ex-convicts gainfully employed does not just benefit the individuals and their families, but also society as it keeps recidivism rate low, said Mr Ravi Subramanian, director of reintegration at Score.
It tracked the 2010 and 2011 batch of ex-offenders it worked with for two years and found that those who got a job within six months upon release are less likely to return to prison - about 20 percentage points difference - than those who were jobless.
"This is because work occupies them and when they have the income to sustain themselves in the community, there is less need for them to return to a life of crime," said Mr Ravi.
Employers say that it makes economic sense to pay them well and keep them because of the labour crunch. "Tapping on them helps us tackle our current manpower issues and the work they do can mostly be learnt on the job," said Ms Iris Luo, assistant human resource manager at Regent Singapore. The hotel has hired 11 ex-offenders since 2012.
Ms June Koh, chief executive of restaurant chain Nandos Singapore, agreed. "They are an alternative labour pool and employers are now more open to hiring them even as foreign labour restrictions tighten further," she said.
Seven of the 62 ex-offenders Nandos hired from last year have stayed beyond six months. The rest have left for better prospects.
The former inmates also earn more now as they are getting jobs in sectors that pay more. They used to do mainly manual jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors, but most now have the skills to hold down better paying jobs in the food and beverage and logistics industries.
About 40 per cent of the ex-offenders matched to jobs by Score are working in these two industries. A warehouse assistant, cook or retail associate can earn a market rate pay of about $1,500 to $1,700 a month, including overtime pay or commission.
"Most of them have less than O-levels qualifications so they initially take up entry level positions," said Mr Ravi. "We help to prepare them to have the relevant skills... by training them six months before they are released."
To ensure that they remain competitive, Score is looking at equipping them with multiple skills, such as training them to use the forklift or do inventory beyond basic logistics work. Job coaches are also assigned to work with those who may have difficulty adjusting to a 9-to-5 office job or fitting in with their colleagues.
Ex-convict Alan (not his real name) said he used to struggle with low self-esteem when he first joined Regent Singapore as a food and beverage captain. But the positive comments he received from guests motivated him and his confidence was given a further boost when he was promoted this year. "I am thankful I have a stable job so that I can provide for my family instead of relying on them," said the 32-year-old, who now earns a salary of about $2,000 after two years on the job.