Parliament: Review foreign labour policy, invest in Singapore workers' soft skills, say MPs

It is time to review Singapore’s foreign labour policy and see if the country can become less dependent on foreign workers, said Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang).

For years, foreign workers have helped fuel Singapore’s progress and complete large-scale infrastructure projects. However, two major events have made clear the need for a review, he said.

First is the Covid-19 outbreak in foreign worker dormitories, when thousands of foreign workers were infected with the coronavirus, and which highlighted “unanticipated costs” in Singapore’s reliance on foreign labour, said Mr Liang.

The second event, he added, was the Little India riot in 2013.

Despite measures taken after the two events, more can still be done to reduce dependence on foreign labour, he said.

On the second day of the debate on the President’s Address in Parliament yesterday, Mr Liang was among several MPs who focused on Singapore’s foreign labour policies and the issues that local workers face in a tight labour market.

There is a need for foreign labour in sectors like construction but more must be done to improve productivity, he said.

For the construction sector, the Government can encourage productivity, for instance, by awarding tenders to firms that use productive construction methods, and rely less on foreign workers.

Demand for foreign labour can also be reduced by being more “discerning” about major construction projects, Mr Liang said.

For example, it is wasteful to demolish buildings that are in good condition only to replace them with similar buildings, as in the case of some collective sale developments, he added.

He also asked if it was necessary to proceed with plans to build Changi Airport’s Terminal 5, especially when air travel is in the doldrums due to the pandemic.

NURTURE SOFT SKILLS

Most businesses place considerable value on the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly, to communicate effectively and demonstrate willingness to collaborate and work as a team.

MS TIN PEI LING, MP for MacPherson, calling for more focused efforts to nurture the soft skills of local workers.

Said Mr Liang: “Are the risks now too high to go ahead with this massive investment?

“Can we work within our existing four terminals, regenerate new value propositions and optimise what we already have with the terminals and the set-up?”

Mr Liang said he welcomed last week’s news that the minimum qualifying salaries for Employment Pass (EP) holders will be increased.

To complement this, Singapore needs to maximise the potential of its local workforce, he added.

Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) made similar suggestions when she called for more focused efforts to nurture the soft skills of local workers.

These include leadership and communication skills, which are “invaluable” compared with paper qualifications, and greater emphasis must be placed on them.

Said Ms Tin: “Most businesses place considerable value on the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly, to communicate effectively and demonstrate willingness to collaborate and work as a team.”

Singapore’s education system needs to make sure its citizens remain the preferred choice of employers by cultivating these skills, and the Government should formulate a plan to groom young adults in the local workforce for potential leadership positions, she added.

Employers, too, can do their part by making clear their expectations of corporate leaders and having a framework identifying key criteria, behaviours and attitudes needed at various levels of management, said Ms Tin.

This way, Singaporeans can be clear about what they have to do to get promoted, she added.

Cases where a local professional is passed over for a foreigner have given rise to complaints about discrimination, said Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC).

She cited an anecdote about one of her residents who was replaced by a foreigner after getting retrenched.

Ms Pereira urged the Government to do more to prevent such hiring biases, and said that while she supported increasing the qualifying salaries for EP holders, this was not enough. She suggested improving hotlines to make it easier for whistle-blowers to report such practices.

The Government should also adopt a consultative process to work more closely with employers to find out what difficulties they face in hiring local workers, and work through these issues in a constructive manner, she said.

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