Don't rush into new framework on fair employment practices, say stakeholders

by Imelda Saad

Business groups say the government should not rush with any new framework to promote a Singaporean-first HR policy.

They were responding to recent comments by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, during the Budget announcement, on possible new measures to ensure fair hiring practices here.

No one knows for sure what the new framework will be like.

But here's an idea floated by the Finance Minister - who said the Manpower Ministry has been studying work pass policies in various developed countries.

Some countries for example, require companies to advertise job vacancies to locals, before they can apply for a foreign work pass.

The manpower ministry says it will consult various stakeholders on this new framework.

Co-Chair of the Tripartitie Alliance for Fair Employment, Heng Chee How, says it's an important signal by the government:

"I think the most straight forward read of that would be to say that it is an open direct commitment on the part of the government that it would do whatever is necessary through policy to ensure that the Singapore core is safeguarded and strengthened and that would include the area of manpower recruitment." 

President of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprise, Chan Chong Beng, cautioned against rushing into any new restrictions:

"You may not get the best people that you want. The second thing is it will slow down the company's expansion if they need workers urgently and of course, thirdly it will be the cost of recruitment - will go up."

The Singapore National Employers Federation has said that employers are prepared to make reasonable efforts to hire and develop Singaporeans. 

But they do not support calls to comply with additional control measures such as tests to fill a vacancy with a Singaporean before employment passes can be approved.

It said there are already constraints with work permits and 'S' passes for semi-skilled workers.

Subjecting employers to additional administrative hurdles before work passes can be approved, it said,  will lengthen the time for hiring, add more costs and new rigidities and be unnecessarily onerous on employers especially the SMEs.

This will undermine Singapore's labour market flexibility which has been a key competitive advantage in attracting and increasing investments that creates jobs for Singaporeans.

Vice President of recruitment company Kelly Services, Mark Hall, says MNCs too, may face problems:

"Multi-national companies come here to enjoy multiple benefits and that could include being a safe regional hub, a great business location, but in addition for a company to thrive, they require talent, and that talent may come in different forms and at different levels. In addition, companies as part of their global mobility in attracting talent, they like to transfer people from other countries into Singapore to enhance their attractiveness to employees, if their employee cannot get a job in Singapore because of a talent restriction, that may indeed may have a negative impact on that company's attraction on their target employees as well. So companies may decide that if the restrictions are too tough, we may need to choose another location in which our business can thrive better." 

Guidelines for fair employment practices here under the tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) were last revised in 2011 to include a chapter on "Hiring and Developing a Singaporean Core".

Among the guidelines - that employers ensure jobs advertised must be open to Singaporeans.

Whatever the new framework, Mr Heng said meritocracy should be at the core of hiring policies:

"Any new framework, over and above TAFEP guidelines that can strengthen the need for employers to look seriously at Singaporeans job seekers before they look elsewhere I think would be helpful to Singapore job seekers who have the competence and the aptitude for those jobs."

And Mr Chan said most employers would know that it makes sense to hire Singaporeans first:

"As an employer, I should know who is the best person I should recruit besides salaries. Now salaries for foreigners no more cheap already. I would obviously employ somebody who knows Singapore, who understand the culture, who can straight away get into society. I don't have to worry about whether to give him time to settle down. I think employers all have this same feeling. It is only when we can't find locals, that's when we resort to foreign workers."

The authorities say whenever they receive a complaint of foreigners hiring only their countrymen, or companies just hiring certain nationalities, they will look into these cases, and employers will then have to comply with the guidelines.

During the Budget statement, Mr Tharman had said that any new framework "must enable companies to continue to meet their competitive needs so that they can provide Singaporean professionals ample opportunities to do well in their careers".

He added, this framework is however "not a matter to be rushed".