Employers in the maritime sector say that foreign applicants often pip Singaporeans to the job because of a sense that they are more willing to work under the tough conditions in the industry.
As few young Singaporeans are drawn to the job, the industry also suffers from a lack of a ready pool of skilled and experienced locals to tap in recent years.
This was the general view of about a dozen employers in the sector who spoke to The Sunday Times, most of whom did not wish to be identified.
They were reacting to the news last week that maritime company Prime Gold International was barred by the authorities from hiring foreign workers for two years after it was found to have discriminated against Singaporeans.
Prime Gold had laid off 13 Singaporeans, who were working as ship captains, officers, engineers and seamen, and hired foreigners in their place.
The company defended itself, saying it was running at a loss and the Singaporean workers had become redundant.
Singapore has more than 5,000 maritime companies that employ 170,000 people. However, the bulk of the seafaring jobs are filled by foreigners from countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. The sector contributes 7 per cent to Singapore's GDP.
Companies prefer to rely on experienced foreigners who can do the job with minimal training rather than hire fresh Singaporean graduates and train them from scratch.
"Training a worker to be a ship captain takes seven or eight years. A company can save on time and cost if it hires an 'off the shelf' foreigner who also has the skills and experience," said the boss of a maritime company.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said it is aware that some companies prefer to hire foreigners.
"MPA recognises that while many Singaporeans take up shore-based jobs, not many are attracted to seafaring jobs given their perceived onerous nature. Given this, there is a tendency for companies to tap the ready pool of seafarers from the region," said a spokesman.
The MPA said it has been working with industry players to organise training programmes and career talks and fairs to encourage more Singaporeans to take up seafaring jobs.
These jobs may entail being out at sea for months, and 10 or more hours of work daily. Local blue-collar seamen earn around $1,200 a month. But the pay is attractive for higher-level jobs - for instance, ship officers earn above $3,000, while captains can get more than $8,000.
Several recruitment experts said concerns about Singaporean workers' lack of commitment are not unfounded.
"Many Singaporeans take up maritime courses in the polytechnics, but few stay on in the jobs. Foreigners have also shown that they are more adaptable to the work conditions," said Mr David Leong, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldWide.
But labour MP Zainal Sapari believes employers should look at offering better employment terms to Singaporeans to retain them.
"It is not unfair to ask for better salaries and to be able to spend more time with your families. It is up to the employer to redesign the work process to meet the needs of workers," he said.
Industry players and human resource experts agreed that maritime companies must think harder about making jobs attractive to locals.
An industry report last year highlighted that the global supply of 624,000 officers falls 13,000 short of demand. But it will be an even tougher challenge for Singapore maritime companies to attract locals because of the general lack of understanding of the work.
Mr Richard Yeo, director of rewards, talent and communication at human resource consultancy Towers Watson Singapore, said companies should let workers know that seafaring jobs can lead to rewarding shore-based careers, such as fleet managers and superintendents, later on.