The operations of essential services, like healthcare, will not be affected by cuts in the foreign worker quotas in the service sector, Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said in Parliament yesterday.
The Manpower and Health ministries will work together to ensure healthcare providers are given "manpower flexibilities" so that there is no disruption in their day-to-day operations, Mr Zaqy added, without elaborating.
The lower quota, which sets the proportion of foreigners on work permits or the S Pass that a company can employ, will take effect in 2020 and 2021.
But the move, announced last week during the unveiling of the 2019 Budget, has generated controversy, with at least two MPs questioning the decision yesterday.
Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said she felt uncertain about the cuts as they would impact the labour-intensive caregiving sector.
"These manpower reductions will have a major impact on our elderly - the very group of Pioneer Generation and the Merdeka Generation seniors whom we want to help age with dignity," said Ms Pereira, who called for a review of the foreign worker quota policy.
Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) suggested having the policy kick in for new workers only, and letting businesses retain existing foreign workers who would have gained experience and skills by working in their companies.
JOB REDESIGN IS KEY
The majority of locals are employed in the service sector, including in food services and retail jobs... We should avoid reinforcing the view that these are jobs that only foreigners want to take up.
MINISTER OF STATE FOR MANPOWER ZAQY MOHAMAD
"They have invested a lot in training their current workers, and it would be a waste to send them back," said Ms Lee.
The previous day, Nominated MP Douglas Foo also urged the Government to be more flexible in implementing the cuts by taking into account the needs of individual businesses in the service industry, as the move will raise labour costs.
Mr Zaqy, responding to Mr Foo, said that depending on the companies' restructuring plans, the Government could calibrate the extent of transitional manpower support to help them cope with the changes.
"We will work closely with the industry, to support businesses in developing more efficient techniques and service models, so that they can grow and transform in a tight labour market," he added.
Since 2012, the Health Ministry has rolled out more than 250 productivity projects for about 70 public healthcare and community care organisations.
Mr Zaqy, explaining the rationale for the quota cuts, said the Government decided against raising worker levies, which would directly raise costs for companies sticking to their existing business models.
But a lower Dependency Ratio Ceiling would give companies a choice: To hire more Singaporeans or transform their business into a leaner organisation.
Whichever option they pick, there are various government schemes to support them, he said, adding that the outcome must be a win-win for workers and employers.
Mr Zaqy also acknowledged that access to foreigners is crucial for businesses to stay competitive, especially if these workers have experience in emerging growth areas or have skills that are in short supply in Singapore.
But he cautioned against becoming over-reliant on foreign manpower, which was the reason the Government had earlier adjusted the Employment Pass (EP) requirements and will continue to do so as Singaporean wages rise, he added.
In 2017, the EP qualifying monthly salary was raised from $3,300 to $3,600 to keep pace with local wages. The change led to a 3 per cent drop in the number of EP holders, with lower-quality professionals leaving Singapore.
Mr Zaqy stressed that job redesign was key in helping all industries - including the service sector - cope with manpower shortages, and uplifting the Singaporean workforce.
Noting that most locals are employed in the service sector, including food and retail, he said: "We should avoid reinforcing the view that these are jobs that only foreigners want to take up."