SINGAPORE - Less than a week after it was announced that the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders will be increased, labour MP Patrick Tay urged the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to consider further raising this minimum pay for two sectors: infocomm technology (ICT) and professional services.
Professional services include law, accountancy and consultancy.
The two sectors generally have more companies on the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) watch list for potentially discriminatory hiring practices, Mr Tay, an assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, said in Parliament on Monday (Aug 31) .
This was among several suggestions he made on strengthening the Singaporean core, in his speech that started the parliamentary debate on the President's Address.
"The disruption brought about by Covid-19 and the resulting economic recession has surfaced ground concerns on the increased competition for jobs and employment. In this regard, we must uphold our pillar of meritocracy. There must be fairness and equal treatment and assessment of workers, which is also a fundamental International Labour Organisation commitment," he said.
Singapore has announced two increases this year in the salary threshold for EP holders.
The second was announced last Thursday, and will start from Sept 1 for new applications.
It will raise the threshold to $4,500, from $3,900. For the first time, the ministry set a higher bar for the financial services sector, with the minimum qualifying salary for new applicants going up to $5,000 from Dec 1.
New S Pass applicants will also need to be paid $2,500 from Oct 1, up from $2,400 now.
The changes affect pass renewals from May next year.
Mr Tay said that since the announcement, union leaders and professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) have told him they worry employers would merely raise the salaries or repackage the compensation and benefits of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) to meet the rules and retain them.
Singaporean staff performing similar or the same jobs as the foreign PMETs may not get a similar pay hike, resulting in "serious parity issues", he added.
He pledged that unions would watch closely the actions of unionised companies, and encouraged workers in non-unionised companies to be union members to get better protection.
On a more general level, strengthening the Singaporean core of PMETs must be addressed at all levels of the hierarchy, he said.
Mr Tay was among more than 10 MPs who spoke on the hot button issue during Monday's debate.
He noted that some large corporations with deep pockets may hire more Singaporeans at junior levels to make the firm look better in terms of the proportion of locals it employs.
The hiring culture and mindsets need to be changed across the board, he added, from chief executives and chief human resources officers to hiring managers and everyone involved in the HR process.
POSSIBLE WAYS TO STOP DISCRIMINATION AGAINST LOCALS
Among other things, Mr Tay also called for greater transparency on intra-corporate transfers of multinationals, in which they bring foreigners here from their overseas offices.
Such foreign professionals, who make up less than 5 per cent of EP holders here, are exempted from the advertising requirement under the FCF, which requires jobs to be posted on the MyCareersFuture.sg portal for at least 14 days.
From Oct 1, the duration of this requirement goes up to 28 days, after which the company can apply for an EP or S Pass.
He also wants MOM to reveal the names of the companies that have been on the FCF watch listfor a period of time, say, one year, and have yet to improve or show concerted efforts to strengthen the Singaporean core.
The Government can also impose mandatory audits and penalties on them, such as removing preferential tax rates or not awarding them public sector contracts.
Economic incentives could be tiered based on the company's commitment to transfer skills from foreign to Singaporean PMEs, added Mr Tay, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education.
He further said MOM should consider having anti-discrimination laws, and giving more legal powers to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), which manages the watch list and works with companies to improve their HR practices.
"We need to re-consider the long-held notion of being regarded as 'not investment friendly' with legislation. The world has moved on to embrace sustainability and related environmental, social and governance legislation, which encompass fair employment.
"Similarly, fair employment legislation has not stopped the likes of London and New York from being vibrant financial centres."
He said the industry transformation maps, launched progressively since 2016 for the 23 main sectors here, can be refreshed, with a closer look at why Singaporeans are unable to fulfil some existing and future PMET jobs and roles.
An action plan can then be developed to address this for the long term.
Mr Tay stressed that NTUC's intention is not to advocate for closed-door policies, as importing foreign labour is necessary for Singapore as an open trade economy with low birth rates.
But with some 1,200 firms on the FCF watch list, it is clear that market failure exists in the current employment framework, he added.
"A healthy dose of market intervention is essential to ensure fair play," he said, adding that this also fosters a sense of belonging and identity among Singaporeans.
"Proper safeguards for our Singaporean PMETs must be put in place to allow our tribe, the Singaporean Core, to flourish and uplift future generations of Singaporeans," he said.
MPS SUGGEST WAYS TO COAX FIRMS TO TRANSFER SKILLS TO LOCALS
Several MPs who spoke on Monday also said that while Singapore should not close itself off from foreign professionals, more can be done to strengthen the local workforce and ensure Singaporeans are put first.
Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) urged the Government to require companies to publish the selection criteria for jobs, not just the job vacancy itself. In doing so, the criteria can be scrutinised.
Like Mr Tay, she suggested implementing a dependency ratio or quota for employment passes (EP) holders in companies, with different ceilings and salary levels for different sectors, and to make sure senior managers are accountable for the hiring of these EP holders.
More should also be done to ensure skills and knowledge are transferred from foreign to local employees, said Ms Foo.
Agreeing, Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) suggested the Government expand the Capability Transfer Programme to nudge companies to set localisation targets.
This programme subsidises the cost of bringing in trainers from abroad to equip local workers with skills and knowledge.
Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), noting her personal experience in working for two foreign multinationals for almost 30 years, said working with foreigners can help Singaporeans develop themselves and scale up large projects.
This, however, hinges on fair employment practices.
She stressed that employers must have clear development plans to grow the Singapore core and build a pipeline of locals to fill senior roles, regardless of national policies to ensure fair employment practices.
"This requires commitment of companies both Singapore and foreign, to invest and develop skills of Singaporeans," she said.