Ex-offenders help ease Singapore's labour crunch

Former inmate Abu Bakar (centre) with supervisor and pastry chef Mr Eng and Marina Mandarin hotel director of marketing communications Patricia Yong. He had zero experience when he started work at the hotel as a cook, but was willing to seek help and
Former inmate Abu Bakar (centre) with supervisor and pastry chef Mr Eng and Marina Mandarin hotel director of marketing communications Patricia Yong. He had zero experience when he started work at the hotel as a cook, but was willing to seek help and has since received a 20 per cent pay rise.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Number of employers listed on Score database rises to 3,800

As the manpower crunch bites, one group is reaping the benefits - former prison inmates.

Bosses are increasingly turning to them as a way of coping with the shortage of workers.

About 3,800 employers are now listed on the database of the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score).

Last year, there were just 3,400, while the figure for 2011 was 2,800.

Former offenders usually command relatively low starting salaries - from $1,300 a month for a cook or warehouse assistant.

This makes hiring them a good way for companies to take on more Singaporeans, who may normally be too expensive to hire. And it saves firms from having to recruit foreign workers, which has been made more difficult by a slew of policy changes introduced throughout the year.

Yesterday's figures were revealed at Score's annual Appreciation Awards at the National Community Leadership Institute.

Sixty-five people and organisations were recognised for helping former offenders reintegrate into society via the workplace.

Every year, Score trains about 5,000 inmates and matches 2,000 workers with employers.

Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin, who was guest of honour at the event, said it was encouraging to see so many companies stepping forward to provide former offenders with job opportunities.

Some make a special effort to help them reintegrate smoothly into society, providing structured orientation programmes and mentorship schemes.

"The extra mile that might not seem hugely significant to us can mean all the world to the people you're reaching out to," said Mr Tan.

"And it's not just the offenders that you help; in many instances, it's about their families as well."

Score chief executive Teo Tze Fang said hiring former inmates was not just a way of beating the manpower crunch.

He added that many employers put in place "progressive and supportive work systems" to keep them satisfied, such as on-the-job training.

"I'm happy to note that increasingly... (firms) are also having regular HR feedback sessions in order to understand the needs of such new employees," said Mr Teo.

He said Score had also been helping to make sure former offenders have a reasonable starting salary that allows them to survive in Singapore.

"A few years ago, it was $800, $900 only," he noted.

Former inmate Abu Bakar, 26, said he was lucky to have received lessons in English and communications while he was still in prison.

These allowed him to speak up and ask for help when he started as a cook at the Marina Mandarin hotel, a job for which he had zero experience.

"It was tough in the beginning as I start work at 4am every day," he recalled.

His supervisor, pastry chef Christopher Eng, said he was initially apprehensive about taking the heavily tattooed former offender under his wing, but later warmed to Mr Abu Bakar's genial personality. That was a year ago.

Today, the father of four has had a 20 per cent pay rise, and hopes to one day step into his mentor's shoes.

Mr Abu Bakar made it clear he adores his job, saying: "From before, when I thought I couldn't make it, now I've fallen in love."

yanliang@sph.com.sg