Most Singaporeans just see Labour Day (known as International Workers’ Day in some countries) as an opportunity to rest instead of having to work, but many of us aren’t aware of its violent origins. This public holiday was created in commemoration of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket affair, where workers were holding a strike at Haymarket Square to protest for 8-hour weekdays (10 to 16-hour weekdays were common then). One of them threw a bomb at the police who were attempting to disperse the crowd, causing the police to open fire at the demonstrators. Seven to eight civilians died as a result, while another 40 were injured. It took another 18 years and more riots in between before 8-hour weekdays were finally legally established. While we now have our 8-hour weekdays, there are still some labour issues closer to our hearts and worth some consideration, such as foreign labour (but please – no strikes!).
Foreign labour has been one of the hottest topics in coffee shop conversations now, and will probably remain as such in the next few years to come. Foreigners currently make up close to 37% of the labour market in Singapore, where this percentage has been steadily rising for the past five years (see Figure 1). Many locals have been lamenting how foreign labour is taking jobs away from them because foreigners are willing to do the same job at a lower salary, or at the same salary but for longer hours. Locals experience more difficulty in finding work as a result, such that they cry foul over the government’s seemingly lax foreign labour policies. Locals also lament how they are having difficulty earning a living in the very country which they were born and bred in, while the government freely lets in foreign labour to “poach” jobs which should rightfully belong to them.
Figure 1 Increasing percentage of foreigners in Singapore’s labour market over the last 5 years. (Percentages calculated from figures as published in the Ministry of Manpower’s website.)
While there is some truth in their complaints, there is another side to the story. Sometimes, employers have no choice but to hire foreign labour. This is because local workers are uninterested in the jobs which employers have to offer, even if offered higher salaries for the same job than their foreign counterparts. For example, it appears that Singaporeans are generally not keen on entering the service industry because they do not enjoy serving others, be it as sales staff or wait staff in food outlets – they would prefer being served by others instead. Foreign workers, on the other hand, have no such qualms and are more willing to take up such jobs. It could also be that there are not enough Singaporeans who are trained in skills which employers are looking for, such that employers have no choice but to look beyond our shores for employees capable of fulfilling the needs of the company.
The government is also taking measures to restrict the entry of foreign labour into Singapore so as to lessen the economy’s reliance on foreign workers for growth. During the Singapore Budget 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that foreign levies would be increased from next July onwards, with the extents of the increase being higher in sectors experiencing larger growth in the foreign workforce. Foreign worker quotas will also be cut for services and marine sectors, and the qualifying salaries for S-Pass holders will be raised from $2,000 to $2,200 per month so as to equalise the playing field for locals and foreigners with respect to salary.
With the government working to tighten Singapore’s foreign labour policies, locals may be able to rest easier knowing that competition for jobs vis-à-vis foreign workers will be lessened such that they may be able to secure jobs more easily. At the same time, perhaps we should try to be more open to jobs which are traditionally shunned, and also continue to improve on their skills in order to become more employable across sectors. A change in mindset and strategy may be just what is needed in order to secure a decent job.
To all job-seekers: keep searching, and don’t lose hope yet! If you have your eye on a particular job with a certain company, be sure to check out Jobiness for more information on that company to see if it is in line with your career goals. And to all workers: enjoy your Labour Day break – see you back in the office on Thursday.
To read more about the Singapore Budget 2013, click here.
To find out more about the latest government policies regarding foreign labour, click here.
Read also: 10 Things to do this May Day in Singapore