Firms under scheme that allows short-term hiring of more foreign staff must be fair employers: Tan See Leng

Firms that breach the Fair Consideration Framework or the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices cannot benefit from the scheme. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Companies wishing to tap the Manpower for Strategic Economic Priorities (M-SEP) scheme must also be fair employers, beyond meeting stringent qualifying criteria on investment, innovation or internalisation efforts, and committing to train or hire more locals.

This means that firms that breach the Fair Consideration Framework or the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices cannot benefit from the scheme, which allows approved firms to temporarily hire additional S Pass or work permit holders beyond prevailing industry quotas.

Second Minister for Trade and Industry Tan See Leng revealed this additional requirement for the first time in Parliament on Monday, in response to a question from labour MP Desmond Choo, who was one of seven MPs who filed eight questions on M-SEP.

Other questions asked ranged from whether the scheme could be expanded further, to the safeguards in place against abuse, and whether the move could blunt the incentive for companies to automate and raise productivity.

Firms that are still undergoing investigations will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, added Dr Tan, who is also Minister for Manpower.

Launched on Dec 13, M-SEP provides an additional quota of S Pass or work permit holders of up to 5 per cent of the existing base workforce, capped at 50 additional workers, for up to two years at a time, and is renewable.

It aims to ensure the growth efforts of firms that can significantly bolster Singapore’s economic competitiveness are not derailed by manpower shortages in the interim, while compelling them to employ or train more locals within the period of benefit.

Responding to Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang) and Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer), Dr Tan said that the first qualifying condition for M-SEP is designed to be inherently a safeguard.

Condition 1 stipulates that a company must either be part of at least one economic scheme, or have been deemed to meet certain economic criteria, by any of five government agencies.

There are 16 ways to meet this condition, which Dr Tan said are specially selected to be in line with Singapore’s economic priorities.

“Because this scheme has been designed to be highly selective at the firm level, there is no need to stipulate further criteria on the specific deployment of each individual worker hired under the M-SEP scheme.

“Such micro-management would not be helpful for the firms.”

Dr Tan also said that local small and medium-sized enterprises can share in the benefits of M-SEP, either by joining the scheme, or benefiting from a larger local talent pool created by it and other government schemes.

Responding to Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang), Dr Tan said additional work passes granted under the M-SEP scheme can be renewed so long as the firm has sufficient quota. This means that the firm has to either successfully renew its M-SEP support, or hire more locals to unlock a higher foreign worker quota under the mainstream system, to continue hiring these workers, he added.

In a subsequent exchange, Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) asked if the policy represented a U-turn in the Government’s foreign manpower management policy.

Demurring, Dr Tan said that the policy helps a highly selected group of companies that the Government has been working with and are known to be on the cusp of a breakthrough that could benefit from additional foreign manpower.

He said M-SEP is among moves to ensure quality of talent in the Employment Pass and S Pass segment is pegged to the top one-third of wages of Singaporean talent.

In another exchange, Mr Edward Chia (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) asked Dr Tan if the scheme could be expanded to more local firms that can contribute to Singapore’s key economic priorities even if they do not meet Condition 1.

Dr Tan replied that the Government’s in-depth knowledge of the initial group of eligible firms would allow it to evaluate the direct benefits of the roll-out of the scheme.

“Once we have a very clear path along the way as the economy changes... we are not averse to rolling it out to more firms, so long as they fit into the broad overarching objectives of improving competitiveness, and, at the same time, making sure that our locals continue to get adequately trained, adequately employed, and they have good career and wage progression.”

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