In our many conversations with researchers, journalists, and other interested parties, a common refrain is how difficult it is to get data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). We cannot explain why that is so, but it is a common guess that hoarding information is a way for agencies to reserve power to themselves. Another often-speculated reason is that opacity helps an organisation avoid public accountability.

One huge data hole is the adamant refusal to provide data about the nationalities of foreigners permitted to work in Singapore. We have no official numbers as to where our high-salaried Employment Pass holders or low-waged Work Permit holders come from.

Even when data is published, the datasets are often so limited and the presentation so user-unfriendly that a correspondent for an international newspaper, in remarks to us, wondered if the webpage he was looking at had been prepared by someone “semi-literate”. That incident was in 2020 and the webpage in question had a table showing workforce populations. It showed the number of migrant domestic workers, the number of construction workers and a total number for Work Permit holders – except that the first two numbers did not add up to the third. The total was hundreds of thousands of workers more.

And it’s still the same as can be seen in the latest version of MOM’s Foreign Workforce Numbers, accessed 3 June 2023.

TWC2 has taken the latest numbers and we are re-presenting them in a more user-friendly way. Due to the breadth of the table, the numbers may be very small depending on the size of your screen. To see better, you can click the table to open it in another tab.

Employment Pass is a work pass meant for professionals, with a minimum salary of $5,000 a month (from 1 Sept 2023) and other eligibility rules, including a higher salary bar for finance professionals.

S-Pass is a work pass for skilled workers, with a minimum salary of $3,150 a month (from 1 Sept 2023), also with additional rules and salary scales.

We wish we can present a 10-year or 20-year series, but MOM does not publish such numbers. Their table is updated each year to include numbers for only five or six years back. Numbers from earlier years are thrown out. Nor do we see any way to retrieve older versions of the table for visibility into the older numbers.

We have tried searching the Department of Statistics site for longer-term numbers, but while there is plenty of data there, stretching over decades, they seem to have nothing about Work Pass populations.

It would be funny if it were not so embarrassing (for the Singapore government) but it is left to little NGOs like TWC2 to maintain a running record of statistics. Whilst our table above spans the years 2017 to 2022 (the span being limited by the latest version of MOM’s Foreign Workforce Numbers, accessed 3 June 2023), we have at this site earlier versions:

The C in the CMP

One significant change in this series of numbers from the previous 2012 – 2017 series is the removal of the figure for Construction Work Permit holders. Instead we see a figure for a new category “CMP” which stands for Construction, Marine shipyard and Process. Whilst it is quite normal for statistical classifications to evolve from time to time, a good practice in publication is to provide a parallel set of data showing how the numbers compare between the old and new classifications.

MOM doesn’t do that. In fact, if anything, the impression that one gets is that the data they do publish tends to be over-aggregated when best practice is to publish disaggregated data.

With the latest figures using the CMP classification, users may be left wondering how many construction workers we have. It’s a bit of a pain.

Fortunately, the latest series has one overlapping year with the previous series that TWC2 published: 2017. In the earlier series, we reported (also drawing from MOM’s figures) that there were 284,900 construction Work Permit holders in December 2017. In the above table, one can see that there were 360,700 CMP Work Permit holders in December 2017.

We can thus calculate that in that month, construction workers made up about 79 percent of the CMP total. We may wish to assume that the percentage currently is not dissimilar, in which case, we estimate that there were about 328,000 construction workers out of the 415,000 CMP Work Permit holders in December 2022.

More than before Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic had a very disruptive effect on the numbers of migrant workers in Singapore. Whilst the shortage of construction workers in 2021 hit the headlines, TWC2 was also aware, speaking to manufacturing companies, that they too lost a sizeable portion of their workforce.

The smaller table below pulls out the numbers for December 2022 and December 2019 (just before the pandemic). It is striking how the numbers of CMP workers are now 12 percent higher than before Covid.

One consequence of the record-high numbers is the pressure on dormitories. They are full to bursting, and despite the fanfare about new rules limiting dormitory rooms to only 12 residents (see Government announces new standards for control of virus, packaged as new dorm standards), the Straits Times reported on 27 March 2023 that “the vast majority of dorms here have reverted to the pre-pandemic average of 12 to 16 workers per room.” (See: Foreign worker housing at full capacity, with situation unlikely to ease soon)

A follow-up article will expand on this issue of bedspace crunch and what workers have to say about it.