Singapore has always relied on foreign workers to perform low-skilled jobs. In recent years, the government has been attempting to reduce the nation’s reliance on such workers, but this is no easy feat. Even now, the city state cannot afford to let go of these vital human resources.
These foreign workers mainly work in Singapore’s manual labour sector, such as construction. The popularity of foreign workers stems from the fact that Singapore’s domestic population is very small, but relatively highly educated. This makes Singaporeans generally unwilling to take up such jobs, as said by Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.
In a recent interview with the media regarding restarting Singapore’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minister Chan noted that there is an over reliance on low-wage migrant workers in industries such as construction, security, and cleaning; and that the government is trying its best to wean itself off this reliance.
He was touching on this issue as a debate has emerged in recent weeks over the matter. The explosion of COVID-19 cases in foreign worker dormitories has sparked calls by some for Singapore to reduce its population of migrant workers.
Several business leaders have disagreed with the minister’s sentiment however. They believe that such a move would have a devastatingly negative impact on the economy.
Over the past few years, The Singaporean government has been encouraging businesses to rethink their processes so as to not be so reliant on manual labour. For example, the construction sector has been advised to adopt prefrabrication technologies, which allows them to construct buildings with fewer workers.
The government has also been encouraging Singaporeans to change their habits by cleaning up after themselves and caring more for the environment, somewhat akin to how the Japanese operate. This might overall help to reduce the nation’s reliance on cleaners, who are a big part of many Singaporean homes.
Nonetheless, the minister admits that Singapore will always need foreign workers in some form or the other. The real big question that needs to be asked is what proportion of the local workforce is prepared and willing to do these sector’s jobs.
Mr Chan painted a hypothetical scenario in which 100,000 Singaporeans are working in the construction sector, instead of the current 300,000-strong foreign workforce. The scenario assumes that the Singaporean workers are three times more productive than foreign workers and are being paid three times more, and that they work for more than 40 years in the sector without quitting.
To realise such a scenario, about 2,500 Singaporeans out of the 33,000 born every year would have to end up working in the construction sector, which translates to about 7.6 percent of every cohort.
We can see from the example how unfeasible it is for Singapore to completely get rid of foreign workers. However, The long-term goal to reduce Singapore’s reliance on low-wage foreign workers does not apply to the high-skilled foreigners that the city-state wants to continue attracting, Mr Chan noted.