COVID-19: Manufacturing and svcs sectors can hire existing Chinese work permit holders in S'pore amid labour crunch

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo (third from right in first row) on a visit to transport manufacturing firm Wong Fong Engineering Works on 25 February, 2020. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — For six months starting next Monday (2 March), companies in the manufacturing and services sectors will be allowed to hire existing Chinese work permit holders who are in Singapore with the agreement of their current employers.

The temporary scheme is one of a string of measures unveiled recently by the government to help employers tide through the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, including a $4 billion package announced during Budget 2020 to help workers stay in their jobs and assist companies with their cash flow.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a visit to transport manufacturing firm Wong Fong Engineering Works on Tuesday afternoon, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo said the scheme will help match companies with excess manpower with those with a shortage of workers as a result of the epidemic.

“During such a period, there can be a situation where you have some companies dealing with excess manpower because the business volumes are not the same as it was before. Yet at the same time, we also have a group of employers who may be dealing with the manpower shortage because some of the workers are unable to return,” said Teo.

The decision to temporarily extend the scheme – currently only applicable to companies in the construction, process, and marine sectors – to the two sectors was taken by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), together with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), the Singapore National Employers’ Federation, and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Currently, companies in the manufacturing and services sectors can only hire existing Malaysian work permit holders who are in Singapore as well as Chinese work permit holders after they have exited Singapore.

Under “ordinary circumstances” for these sectors, Chinese work permit workers will have to return home once they are released from their employers and other potential employers will have to go through the process of re-applying for work permits, Teo noted.

The temporary scheme, however, will facilitate “a direct transfer” of manpower as workers – with their existing employers’ consent – will be allowed to transfer to and start work immediately at another company within the same sector without first having to leave Singapore as well as serve the mandatory stay-home notice, she said.

All Singapore residents and long-term pass holders returning to Singapore from mainland China have to abide by the notice, which forbids them from leaving their residences for 14 days.

“We hope by doing so, it will help both sets of companies, certainly in terms of costs (such as repatriation expenses),” Teo added. “I think this will plug the gap and we hope that this is also a practical tangible way in which we can help businesses to manage the current situation.”

Under the scheme, the MOM will work with the SBF to facilitate the transfer of Chinese work permit holders between companies within the same sector. Employers interested to participate in the scheme can contact the SBF at manpowerconnect@sbf.org.sg.

The federation will provide the facilitation service for free for the first month and thereafter, may charge employers a nominal fee which will be announced later.

Wong Fong Industries Chief Financial Officer Jack Wong said that the temporary scheme will help in the overall management of the business but noted that it will take some time to bring new workers up to speed.

The company – which runs Wong Fong Engineering Works – employs about 40 Chinese work pass holders out of a 290-strong workforce.

Of the 13 who have not returned to Singapore, the first batch of four workers will be coming back on Wednesday while two, who have visited areas near the epicentre of the coronavirus, will not be returning indefinitely.

While the company has tried to replace the missing manpower with workers who have been cross-trained, Wong noted that the issue remains that these Chinese work pass holders handle specialised labour, including the installation and servicing of equipment.

The company will definitely tap into the new scheme, he said, but noted that it may not as applicable to companies looking to plug the gaps for projects with long-term manpower needs.

‘Majority’ of Chinese work pass holders have not returned

Separately, when pressed on how many of the 30,000 work pass holders from China have returned to Singapore, Teo said the “majority” have not returned given the entry approval requirements in place for those with travel history to mainland China returning here, without providing figures.

The MOM said on Monday that it has rejected around 500 such applications per day since the implementation of the requirements on 9 February, to manage the workers’ inflow into Singapore.

This is higher than the 400 rejections per day announced by the ministry in the first week of its implementation. It also approved an average of 220 applications daily, 20 more per day compared to the first week of its implementation.

To date, the MOM has revoked the work passes of 11 workers who entered Singapore despite failing to obtain approval from the ministry.

The workers were sent back and permanently banned from working here. Their employers’ work pass privileges have also been suspended for one year.

When asked if the ministry would be extending such requirements to work pass holders with travel history to other countries, namely those with more cases of COVID-19, Teo noted that the issue is something that the multi-ministry taskforce on the virus will look at.

“Wherever we act, we act on a whole of government basis. Of course, if the measures are extended, the MOM also has to look at the appropriate actions to be taken on the work pass holders front,” she added.

On Tuesday, the taskforce announced that it will be banning all visitors with recent travel history to Daegu and Cheongdo from entering or transiting through Singapore, and may impose stricter travel restrictions to the rest of the country if the virus spreads further there.

At 977 confirmed cases, including 11 deaths, South Korea has the most coronavirus cases outside China. The majority of them are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu and over 100 to Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo.

All Singapore residents and long-term pass holders with recent travel history to both areas within the last two weeks must serve a 14-day stay-home notice. 

The MOM later on Tuesday night also announced that all work pass holders – including dependants – with travel history to both Daegu and Cheongdo within the last two weeks will need to obtain the ministry’s approval before entering Singapore.

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