SINGAPORE - There were 4,200 intra-corporate transferees working in Singapore last year, a number that has remained consistently small, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng in Parliament on Tuesday (July 6).
About 500 of these foreign employees brought in from the overseas offices of multinational corporations (MNCs) are from India.
This is out of 177,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore, he added.
Dr Tan was presenting a ministerial statement on free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreign workers in Parliament, touching on issues such as intra-corporate transferees that have been a point of contention.
Intra-corporate transferees are overseas employees at an MNC who have worked for at least a year in the company, before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore.
Companies that want to fill a role with an intra-corporate transferee are exempted from the Fair Consideration Framework requirement that requires firms to advertise jobs on MyCareersFuture.sg, before submitting EP and S Pass applications.
But the transferee still has to meet the prevailing work pass criteria before they are allowed to work in Singapore.
Dr Tan said: "None of our FTAs, including the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), gives intra-corporate transferees unfettered access to our labour market."
He added that such employees are subject to additional checks on their seniority, employment history and work experience. They are also subject to more conditions on their eligibility to bring in dependants, and apply for permanent residency or future employment in Singapore.
"If they have brought in dependants, the dependants do not have automatic rights to work here. They can only do so if they qualify for a work pass on their own merits," he said.
Intra-corporate transferees are a common feature of FTAs globally to allow for the movement of professionals for short periods to set up offices or for ad hoc projects, for instance.
Dr Tan said: "The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has made Indian nationals coming in through Ceca a focus of contention. I am afraid the PSP has been barking up the wrong tree.
"The number of intra-corporate transferees coming in under our FTAs, and in particular Ceca, is very small relative to our total number of EPs. I suggest we set aside this red herring and move on to the heart of the matter."
He added that there is no such category as "professional visas", but that all 127 categories of professionals under Ceca currently come in under the regular work pass framework.
But moving away from these "red herrings", Dr Tan said the heart of the matter is really how Singapore can remain open to global talent to create opportunities for Singaporeans, while managing the social repercussions that come with it.
He noted how the economy has grown from a gross domestic product of $20 billion at the start of the 1970s to $454 billion today.
Foreign workers account for about a third of Singapore's workforce.
More than 2.3 million locals are employed, and the resident unemployment rate is 4.1 per cent, half of what it was in 1970.
"Singaporeans are pragmatic, and understand that we need to remain open to global talent. However, they also face real challenges," he said.
He noted that Singaporeans are worried that the growth in EP holders has come at the expense of local professionals.
They are also concerned that some workplaces have become more concentrated with a single nationality, and that there may be discrimination against local job seekers and workers.
Dr Tan said: "I am not suggesting that all of our approaches are perfect... We will continue to refine them in the light of experience, always with a focused view to having a system that can deliver good jobs, livelihoods and a thriving economy for Singaporeans."