This letter from TWC2 was published in the Straits Times Forum on Monday, 24 May 2021. For a fuller discussion of the problem, see our article Short of foreign labour, Singapore sending workers home even when they want to stay and work.

For an estimate of the numbers of workers we might have lost in the second half of 2020, see our analysis of MOM’s numbers in Nearly 8,000 foreign construction workers had permits cancelled close to expiry date. In that commentary, we estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 might still be here today who were sent back last year.

Allow foreign workers whose work permits have been cancelled to stay and look for new job

Then Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said that last year, the number of work permit holders in the construction, marine and process sectors declined by nearly 60,000, leading to the present shortage of manpower (S’pore firms affected by Covid-19 border curbs on migrant workers getting more help: Tan See Leng, May 11).

He explained that work pass holders are typically required to leave Singapore within two to four weeks after their pass expires or is cancelled.

In the past few months, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) had been highlighting this problem, where the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), by sticking to pre-Covid-19 practices, allowed a manpower shortage to develop.

As Dr Tan himself pointed out, MOM was requiring employers to repatriate workers whose work permits were prematurely cancelled by their employers.

TWC2 saw many workers who were repatriated because their employers did not have enough work for them and were not willing to allow them to transfer to another company. At the same time, other employers were desperate for workers but were unable to take in these excess workers even when the workers themselves wanted to continue working in Singapore.

We are not referring to workers reaching the end of their contracts, for whom MOM has a mechanism to allow them to look for new jobs. We are referring to those whose work permits were deliberately cancelled by their employers, and workers on special passes whose cases have been concluded and therefore should be fit to work again.

By rigidly adhering to the policy of allowing employers to repatriate workers at will, Singapore ended up short of workers. It’s a self-inflicted problem.

MOM should stop further repatriation and give workers whose work permits have been prematurely cancelled and who wish to continue working the right to look for new jobs without being sent home.

Likewise, special pass holders whose cases have concluded should also be allowed to remain and take up new jobs. MOM should actively facilitate the process of helping these men find new employers.

Singapore’s target of upgrading skills and improving productivity depends on its ability to retain skilled and experienced workers. The present policy allowing employers to send workers home at will after denying them a transfer is contrary to our national interest.

Failure to act now will have a debilitating effect on the construction industry as a whole and hinder progress in rebuilding and supporting an already beleaguered industry.

Deborah D. Fordyce
Transient Workers Count Too