The above photo was taken from an article in myRepublika dated 23 Sept 2018, titled “Sorrows of Nepali migrant workers” by the former Nepali ambassador to Qatar, Surya Nath Mishra

In December 2019, TWC2 vice-president Alex Au represented the organisation at an event on the topic of recruitment. It was a two-day event, sponsored by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and organised by Migrant Forum Asia. It took place in Bangkok.

Here are some reflections on the event, particularly on the issue of upskilling, one of the sub-topics of the conference.

Representatives from labour-source countries spoke at some length about the different training projects that were in place and more programmes planned, especially a wide initiative by the Indian government to fund such training. They had their criticisms of the programme but what struck us was more fundamental: we had doubts whether any part of it had been co-ordinated with destination-country skill needs. Ditto with remarks by other participants who spoke at some length about pre-departure orientation. TWC2 knows of no instance in recent memory of any source-country agency conducting pre-departure training asking us what issues should be included in it to better prepare work migrants for their life in Singapore.

Another representative from India spoke about how prospective domestic workers were already being trained for their future jobs, e.g. in being able to handle washing machines and other household appliances. This struck us as rather beside the point, as such “skills” were, from Singapore’s perspective, extremely basic. Describing it as an example of upskilling was stretching the term. The typical middle-class Singapore household able to afford foreign domestic workers would all have such modern appliances. If a maid cannot handle a washing machine or microwave oven, she won’t even meet the basic qualification for the job. It’s not as if the indigenous skill of washing clothes in a river or cooking with firewood would have any market value in Singapore.

A third delegate made a more general point that labour export is not an unalloyed good. No informed person would ever say it is, but what was surprising was the example she cited. She said something about how workers going to Singapore to work in construction, while getting better wages than they would get at home, were nonetheless thrown into insecurity and vulnerability because by its very nature, construction work was very “casualised employment”. This got TWC2’s delegate thinking: No, it’s not. For all its other problems, construction employment in Singapore is formal employment with all the benefits that come with it.

Perception gap

The common denominator from all the above is that there is a gulf in understanding between NGOs and training agencies working in source countries and organisations like TWC2 in destination countries. And this has implications for Singapore’s hope of getting better skilled labour as we try to raise our productivity levels or cope with an aging population.

An underlying reason for the gulf may be that personnel from source-country organisations hardly ever have opportunities to visit expensive destinations like Singapore, Hong Kong or Japan and spend enough time here to fully understand destination-country skill needs. Without this insight, the best they can do as they design training programmes is to produce something that might meet the needs of their own country’s urban middle-class and industries, on the assumption that the needs of destination countries’ industries and middle-class households would be similar.

Such assumptions can be wildly off the mark, as can be seen from the comment about construction work being “casualised employment”.

In developing countries, most cities would have street corners where men with bricklaying, plumbing or digging skills would hang out in the day to be hired by contractors driving by. They would be day labourers though, with luck, the engagement might stretch over several days or even weeks. Nonetheless, the employment relationship would remain an informal one. The conference participant who made that comment was probably picturing construction work in Singapore to resemble that too.

That is simply not so. Foreign construction workers in Singapore have a documented employment relationship with their employers with defined monthly salaries and other terms. There are processes to enforce statutory or contractual standards. Employers are required to observe safety protocols and purchase insurance.

In the same way, is it hard for people in source countries to grasp the skill needs of Singapore.

For example, a whole new category of care workers is emerging, and we can expect to be hiring big numbers in years to come. Conceptually, they are quite different from domestic workers for whom being trained to operate microwave ovens, washing machines and vacuum cleaners might be achievement enough. Eldercare for example would require workers who can handle mobility-impaired or cognition-impaired adults, who can do a bit of physiotherapy or handle complicated medication regimes — which means a certain level of English literacy.

In industry, we will need workers who can handle highly automated or robotised equipment. Here again, literacy — being able to read operations manuals and safety requirements — and possibly numeracy and digital competence come to the fore, in additional to whatever specific skills are necessary to safely handle the equipment.

Where to train them?

It may not be realistic to expect migrant workers to be trained in source countries for these needs. Not only is it going to be a tall order to expect organisations in source countries to even understand what working in Singapore is like or the skill sets required, how would they have the resources to do so?

Even the above-mentioned wide training programme being promoted by the Indian government is no solution. As TWC2 said in response to the participant who mentioned it, the first problem is that Singapore is not likely to recognise any of the certificates so issued. Many questions will arise about course curriculum, English literacy and other aspects of suitability for the Singapore context, not to mention specific needs of specific employers or industries, especially when these training courses are developed with no input from the destination side.

There is — we shall say it here though in the interest of diplomacy we didn’t say it at the conference itself — also the fact that in some source countries, corruption is endemic. How to trust the value of such certificates?

It is one thing to be liberal about source-country training for very basic skills such as domestic work or timber joinery, it is quite another when we’re discussing intermediate and higher skills.

Take welding, for example. Despite workers claiming to have taken a course and received a certificate from a source-country institute, many Singapore employers insist on conducting a welding test for any new worker. Every year, TWC2 comes across cases where the workers have failed their test and thus lost their prospective jobs. The workers come crying to us (“But I paid $8,000 to get this job!”), but we understand employers’ needs; we can only advise the workers to accept the facts and upgrade themselves for the future.

The larger implication is that Singapore needs a plan to provide intermediate and higher skills training to migrant workers. While we may well accept the present arrangement where basic skills are learned in the source country, upskilling should be through courses and institutes in Singapore.

There is a need for a master plan, funding and incentives for employers and employees to take up the offers. In our view, what we presently have is way too fragmented, haphazard and profit-making to serve our country’s needs. We lavish huge resources on schools and institutes to educate and train Singaporeans — nothing wrong with that — but we mustn’t forget that one third of our workforce are foreigners. It can hardly be in our best interest to ignore (and be penny-pinching about) this huge pillar of our society and economy.