By Kor Kian Beng
IN A rare show of disagreement, the labour movement and Singapore's main employers' group made public yesterday their different views on how best to ensure bosses adopt a Singaporeans First policy when hiring and grooming workers.
Their differences boiled down to whether there was a need for new measures to make it harder for employers to turn to foreigners when seeking workers.
The position of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is that more measures are needed to curb employers' reliance on foreign workers, for two reasons: Cheap foreign workers suppress the wages of locals, and can lead to yet more instances of a company being dominated by these employees, possibly of the same nationality.
But the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) argues that additional measures to further control the hiring of foreigners will, among other things, add to costs and make them less competitive. What it prefers is for employers to intensify efforts to hire and groom Singaporeans, and for measures targeted at providing retraining and better job-matching.
Both sides gave their positions in separate statements, with the SNEF's made on behalf of 17 business chambers and industry associations.
They were issued after a tripartite panel yesterday gave an update on the feedback received for proposed guidelines on fair employment practices, with a focus on ensuring locals come first in hiring and grooming for management roles.
The guidelines are part of the Government's pledge to put Singaporeans first in jobs, education and housing, and will be ready by the year end .
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) said it would consider 'reasonable and practical' ideas for the guidelines. The public has till Oct 24 to give feedback on it.
Meanwhile, former veteran unionists, like Mr Thomas Thomas, are not perturbed by the disagreement between NTUC and SNEF.
It may be a departure from the usual low-key, behind-closed-doors negotiations of the tripartite partners, but bringing discussions on labour issues into the open could help to educate the public on the challenges faced by both unionists and employers, said Mr Thomas, 58, who was an NTUC leader for 19 years.
'It's only harmful if it's done for posturing and playing to the gallery. I think good sense will eventually prevail, and both sides will come to a solution.'
At the moment, both sides are agreed on one thing: It is important that Singaporeans remain the core of the workforce.
NTUC said sustained social and economic progress can be achieved only by nurturing a Singaporean core at all levels, even as it supports a diversified workforce. It is mulling ideas from unionists for changes to two government schemes to improve a local's work prospects.
One is to impose quotas on foreign professionals on Q1-type passes, the lowest Employment Pass (EP) for those earning at least $2,800 a month, 'unless efforts by employers to attract, retain and nurture Singaporeans in all major sectors of our economy are effective'. Currently, there is no quota for EP holders.
Another idea is for a tiered S Pass scheme with higher qualifying salaries. The scheme for semi-skilled foreigners has a minimum salary of $2,000 a month.
The SNEF is against these suggestions, saying new measures would make the labour market more rigid for employers.
It also pointed to measures introduced last year that raised foreign worker levies and reduced quotas for foreigners.
'We are concerned that without (access to foreigners), our competitiveness will erode gradually as talent goes elsewhere, and Singaporeans will lose out on many growth opportunities over the long term,' said the SNEF. It noted countries like New Zealand and Denmark have changed labour laws to make it easier for employers to hire skilled foreigners.
Also, foreigners play a key role here by taking up jobs locals shun, staff labour-intensive operations like call centres, and bring in skills that are scarce in Singapore, like private bankers, said the SNEF.
Employers interviewed welcomed NTUC's suggestion for the TAFEP guidelines to give incentives so that companies will hire Singaporeans first.
Japanese chemical giant Teijin Polycarbonate's assistant human resource manager Audrey Seah agreed with NTUC's proposal to groom more locals for management. She said more than 90 per cent of Teijin's 183 employees here are local.
But Mr Neil McGregor, chief executive of Singapore LNG Corporation, which is building a liquefied natural gas terminal here, wants some leeway as the power sector needs skilled foreigners: 'We believe special concession should be given to specific industries the Government is trying to build up and which will be of strategic importance to Singapore's well-being.'