Short-term help for SMEs facing labour woes

Office workers at Robinson Road.
Office workers at Robinson Road.PHOTO: ST FILE

There is some relief in store for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) undergoing restructuring. They will be given short-term help in hiring and retaining foreign workers.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will ease up on how it applies the foreign workers quota and ratios to these businesses.

Some employers will be allowed to hold on to more of their better- skilled foreign workers temporarily, even as their overall foreign workforce numbers are cut.

Others will be allowed to hire foreign experts - who will not count towards the foreign workers quota - to train local workers.

This assistance will last for up to three years under the Lean Enterprise Development (LED) Scheme announced yesterday by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

The flexibility will help SMEs boost productivity by cutting their foreign workforce through innovation and automation, Mr Lim told 120 SME bosses and associations at a meeting.

Companies must apply to the MOM to join the two-year pilot scheme, which starts in October.

Applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis and those backed by unions and industry associations will be given priority.

Mr Lim stressed that there is no change in the Government's foreign worker policies.

"This scheme is not about helping companies get more foreign workers," said Mr Lim. "If they think that way, all their proposals will be rejected. There is no surge in the (foreign workers) quota... we are not changing the ratio."

The MOM also announced a new multi-agency LED taskforce yesterday led by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and Spring Singapore. It will coordinate the implementation of various government schemes to help SMEs.

Unions and employers welcomed both moves.

"It is a departure from the past," said Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee. "They are going to take a hands-on, operative approach in looking at how to help companies."

Mr Thomas Fernandez, chief executive of pest control agency PestBusters, said the LED scheme will give his company room to reduce headcount, which it plans to do by using drones to inspect gutters.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) said the MOM has to be selective in picking companies for the scheme. NTUC's assistant secretary-general Yeo Guat Kwang said: "MOM should ensure that this transitional and targeted flexibility... is offered only to help firms make the transformation and not as a permanent arrangement."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Short-term help for SMEs facing labour woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe