Foreign manpower growth slowing down: Tan Chuan Jin

Commuters wait on the platform to board a train during peak hour in Singapore. The number of foreign workers in Singapore has risen by about 100,000 as of then end of June this year from a year ago despite measures to slow their influx, government data showed

Foreign manpower in Singapore grew by 34,100 people in the first half of this year, largely due to strong demand from the construction sector as the government ramps up the building of HDB flats, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said on Sunday.

Addressing concerns about recently-released population statistics showing continued growth in Singapore’s foreign workforce number, Tan explained in a post in The Manpower Blog where the increases were coming from.

He pointed out that the overall growth in foreign manpower earlier this year was slower than the 36,800 added in the first half of last year.

“Our tightening has certainly had an impact and is being felt by companies, but businesses are still expanding or being set up. This demand for foreign manpower is very considerable and many businesses remain prepared to pay the higher costs involved,” he said.

However, in sectors other than construction the first-half growth in foreign manpower this year amounted to 18,600, about 40 per cent lower than that of the same period last year, he noted.

Work permit (WP) stock, excluding that of foreign domestic workers, he said, grew by 20,600 in the first six months of this year, with much of the inflow in the past few months to foreign construction workers.

HDB, for example, he said, will need about 30,000 construction workers to meet this year’s building programme, and the cumulative requirement could rise to 50,000 within the next few years.

Employment pass (EP) stock fell by 700, the first semestral reduction since the recession in 2009, he said, noting that government’s tightening on inflow of foreign manpower was now being felt at the professional-managerial-executive level.

However, he acknowledged that S passes registered strong growth of 14,200 in the first half of this year, and that companies were probably using such passes to bring in more junior level PMEs.

“We are taking a close look at this group,” he said.

“We are on the right track in our efforts to reduce dependency on our foreign labour but this will take time,” he pointed out.

“How much time exactly will depend on many factors, particularly the extent of our tightening measures and how fast companies restructure and improve productivity. And as you can imagine, this will definitely not be overnight,” he added.

The large increase in foreign labour over the past several years has become a source of unhappiness among Singaporeans, many of whom feel that the government's loose immigration policy is to blame for the rising cost of living, overcrowding in transport and stiff competition for jobs.

This was expressed in the parliamentary polls last year when the ruling party's share of vote fell to its lowest level since Singapore's independence in 1965.

The government has already taken measures to stem the inflow of foreign workers, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has pledged even more tightening.

Similarly, in his blog post, Tan said that he is "fully aware of the concerns of too large a foreign workforce" and that the government will increase infrastructural support to ease congestion.

"If needed, we will tighten foreign workforce controls further," he said, noting, however, that companies must do their part to transform and be more productive.