In this article, we put together several recent parliamentary statements and replies to build a picture of the manpower situation in construction and related industries as Singapore emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
On 10 January 2022, Manpower Minister Tan See Ling told Parliament that his ministry resumed entry approvals for workers in the construction, marine shipyard and process (CMP) sectors to enter Singapore starting 1 November 2021. A monthly average of 18,000 S-Pass and Work Permit holders from the CMP sectors arrived in November and December 2021.
The numbers are much larger than the monthly average of 2,000 and 3,000 between May and October 2021 when travel restrictions and tightened entry approvals were in place, he added.
This suggests that a total of about 46,000 CMP workers entered Singapore in the second half of 2021. What we don’t know is how many workers from these sectors went home in the same period, and thus we cannot estimate the net change in CMP manpower numbers.
As seen from the table below, in pre-Covid years, we had 370,000 to 407,000 work permit holders in CMP sectors.
This total fell to a low of 304,000 in June 2021, about 66,000 below the December 2019 figure of 370,000. Assuming no worker went back in the second half of 2021 (not a safe assumption), then the roughly 46,000 who re-entered Singapore would make up a good part of the shortfall. Bear in mind we’re dealing with rough figures here because the minister’s figures about incoming arrivals referred to both S-Pass and Work Permit holders.
We say it is not a safe assumption that no worker went home in the second half of 2021 because, as shown in this recent article, TWC2 kept coming across repatriations.
Retention as supplement to re-entry
Re-entry and retention are the two main strategies for addressing the shortfall of workers. Retention is achieved through three pathways:
- Employers and employees agree on renewal of work permits when they reach expiry dates;
- Should parties be unable to agree on renewal, workers are not prevented by employers from using their no-consent period to look for new jobs and are successful in doing so. A no-consent period (20 to 30 days) is when a worker whose permit is expiring or has expired is free to look for a transfer job without need to get the current employer’s consent.
- Workers who have their work permits prematurely cancelled or whose no-consent periods are frustrated by their employers enrol into the SCAL retention scheme and are placed in new jobs.
As far as we can see, there is no publicly available data on (1) and (2) above, without which it is hard to assess how healthy retention is via these two pathways.
However, as will be explained in a following article, we reckon that in normal times, about two in three work permits nearing expiry dates are renewed (i.e. via pathway 1). As also will be explained in that article, this means that about 5,000 to 8,000 work permits are not renewed each month.
Of the non-renewals, some men find new jobs through their no-consent periods (pathway 2) but we have no idea how many. No doubt, some workers want to go home, but again there is no data from the authorities. However, as described in a recent article, there are workers who want to stay in Singapore and transfer to new jobs but are still repatriated because they couldn’t get into the SCAL retention scheme (pathway 3).
SCAL retention scheme looks almost irrelevant
The Manpower Minister revealed to Parliament on 15 February 2022 some numbers about the SCAL scheme. He said,
Since its implementation in September 2021, about 430 workers have been enrolled in the scheme. 60% of them have already been successfully matched to new employers.
Compared to our manpower needs, these numbers are very small and arguably irrelevant. 430 enrolled workers or about 260 successful placements represent less than one percent of the shortfall of 66,000 workers as at June 2021. Even if we didn’t have a shortfall of workers, these numbers are nowhere near the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 non-renewals per month in normal times.
The Singapore Contractors Association Limited (SCAL) runs a temporary scheme to assist workers who have had their work permits cancelled, or were not renewed find new jobs within 30 days. In this article, this is referred to as the SCAL retention scheme. See this article and this article for more information.
It may be argued that the current shape and form of the SCAL retention scheme is meant as a pilot and it can be expanded if successful.
However, we have observed that the SCAL scheme is labour intensive and possibly costly for SCAL – they have to pay for workers’ housing and meals – and thus scaling up may be difficult. In short, it is hard to see such a programme – one requiring so much effort for so little impact – as a major solution to either the current shortfall of manpower, or to the broader aim of retention for productivity improvement.
Some other details emerging from recent parliamentary statements and press releases
There have been a few other interesting statements from the Ministry of Manpower in recent weeks, and we’ll put them here for the record.
Marine and process industries don’t yet have a retention scheme
Buried within a parliamentary speech on 15 February 2022, the Manpower Minister revealed that whilst it had been envisaged since November 2021 that the industry associations for the marine shipyard and process companies were to operate retention schemes similar to SCAL’s scheme for construction workers, these bodies have not yet set up their schemes. They were said to be “preparing for this implementation and should be ready soon.”
Given the cost and labour-intensiveness of SCAL’s experience, we wonder if there is resistance from the industry associations to doing something similar.
The Manpower Minister revealed on 14 February 2022 that about 98% of migrant workers living in dormitories are fully vaccinated. He added:
In 2021, 11 fully vaccinated migrant workers required oxygen or were admitted to intensive care. This represents 0.05% of vaccinated migrant workers who tested positive on a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Another 7 unvaccinated or partially vaccinated migrant workers needed oxygen supplementation or were admitted to intensive care, representing 0.32% of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated migrant workers who tested PCR positive. This proportion is more than 6 times that of vaccinated migrant workers. There were no COVID-19 related deaths amongst migrant workers living in dormitories in 2021.
An earlier announcement by the ministry (26 December 2021) made vaccination a condition for approval of work passes, starting from 1 February 2022. Existing and incoming workers must be fully vaccinated with a vaccine that is on the World Health Organisation’s emergency use list. If the vaccination had not been carried out in Singapore, then the worker must show a positive serology test result — the serology test must be done in Singapore — in order to be included in the National Immunisation Registry, and this must be done within 30 days of arrival. If the serology test does not show a positive result, the worker must then complete a full vaccination regimen in Singapore.
Failure to do so will result in revocation of the work pass.
Reduction in the Dependency Ratio
For a long time, companies in the construction and process sectors have had a dependency ratio of 7:1, which means that the company can employ 7 foreign workers for every Singaporean and permanent resident on its payroll.
Starting 1 January 2024 (about 22 months from the announcement of 18 February 2022) the ratio will be brought down to 5:1.
The other way by which a company can (after the announcement, could) get “quota” to hire foreign workers, which was through the Man-Year Entitlement formula, will be abolished.
These and other measures contained in the announcement was aimed at making the industry “more productive and manpower lean”, the ministry’s announcement said.