Don't cut foreign worker levels, say business groups

Industry leaders warn of higher costs, slower growth and impact on Singaporeans' jobs

Migrant workers account for more than 90 per cent of the 32,876 confirmed Covid-19 infections in Singapore.
Migrant workers account for more than 90 per cent of the 32,876 confirmed Covid-19 infections in Singapore.PHOTO: ST FILE

Reducing the number of migrant workers in Singapore, in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak, will hurt Singapore's economic recovery and harm the job prospects of Singaporeans, several business groups and trade associations said yesterday. 

In a flurry of statements, these groups came out strongly against recent calls to restrict the number of foreign workers in Singapore, cautioning that such steps were unwise and could backfire on Singaporeans.

Migrant workers account for more than 90 per cent of the 32,876 confirmed Covid-19 infections in Singapore as of yesterday and some political commentators have argued that the Republic should consider reducing its dependence on them in the light of the outbreak in the dormitories.

Countering this, the industry groups, between them, asked Singaporeans to consider three central implications of cutting back on migrant worker numbers: Singaporeans might have to put up with higher costs; Singapore's economy might become less competitive; and Singaporeans might not be able to focus primarily on white-collar jobs, as they can now when foreign workers take on the low-paying jobs.

In a joint statement, the Singapore Indian, Malay and Chinese chambers of commerce and industry said: "Given Singapore's limited workforce, we would not be able to stay competitive in certain sectors... if not for migrant workers."

They said migrant workers take on many lower-end jobs in Singapore. This allows the vast majority of Singaporeans to take on PMET jobs, and help in creating an innovation-based economy as well, they added, referring to jobs for professionals, managers, executives and technicians. "Thus, we urge the Government and Singaporeans to carefully consider the next steps on migrant workers."

As of March, there were 720,800 work permit holders in Singapore, excluding foreign domestic workers. Of that number, 287,800 of them were in the construction industry. There were 194,900 S Pass holders, and 193,800 on employment passes.

The Singapore Contractors Association said the 300,000 foreign workers in the construction industry formed the backbone of the sector, taking on labour-intensive jobs that locals preferred not to do. "Reducing the number of foreign workers would hamper the current speed at which Singapore continues to grow and redevelop."

The Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore put it starkly: Would Singaporeans accept higher costs if jobs such as maintaining lifts cannot easily be filled by locals?


Meanwhile the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, the Association of Singapore Process Industries, and the Association of Singapore Marine Industries rejected suggestions that foreign worker numbers should be cut. The manufacturing sector accounts for about 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product.

They pointed out that businesses in Singapore had been severely tested by the pandemic.

"However, when demand for goods and services returns, we will need workers to keep businesses going and recover," they said. "Without sufficient migrant workers working alongside Singaporeans in key sectors, our economy will be at stake. Our businesses and Singaporeans' jobs will be at stake."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2020, with the headline 'Don't cut foreign worker levels, say business groups'. Subscribe