By Cai HaoXiang
SINGAPORE - Even without the policy moves to curb inflows, the supply of blue-collar foreign workers in Singapore could be drying up. Low wages, the high cost of living here, and better prospects in the workers' home countries have all played a part in this trend.
Companies across various sectors like retail, food and beverage, and manufacturing told The Business Times they are having trouble finding workers from Malaysia, a traditional source country, to fill low-end positions.
In construction, Malaysian unskilled labour stopped coming five to 10 years ago. But in recent years it has been harder to find Thai, mainland Chinese, and even Indian workers.
Malaysia is a traditionally big source of bilingual workers, who apply for jobs here directly by reading newspaper advertisements, bypassing most employment agencies. Employers face fewer restrictions in hiring them.
But in recent years the flow from the Malaysian tap has slowed to a drip, due to a booming economy across the Causeway combined with the rising cost of living here.
Ho Mei Leng, a human resources assistant at manufacturer Li Chuan Food Products, said there are 20 Malaysian workers among the company's 135 employees now, down from 40 a few years ago. "Maybe living standards there are higher now," she said.
Malaysia's economy grew 7.2 per cent in 2010 and 5.1 per cent last year. The unemployment rate was a seasonally adjusted 2.9 per cent in February this year.
Inflation is expected to moderate to between 2.5 and 3 per cent this year from 3.2 per cent last year. A monthly minimum wage of 800 to 900 ringgit (about S$350) could be introduced on May 1. But in Singapore, the higher costs of owning a car and steeper rents pushed inflation up to a three-year high of 5.2 per cent last year.
Those staying further away from Singapore may not find it as attractive to come here for work any more, said Dr Moh Chong Tau, deputy president of the Singapore Manufacturers' Federation.
"Those around the Johor area still prefer to come to Singapore as it is just half an hour away. But further up north, like Selangor onwards, it will be difficult to draw them down as housing is costly," he said.
The Ministry of Manpower does not publish statistics on the breakdown of the blue-collar workforce by nationality. But the growth of Work Permit holders in the workforce has slowed in recent years. There were 680,000 Work Permit holders at the end of 2008, dropping to 660,000 in 2009.
Their numbers rose to 670,000 in 2010, and 702,000 in 2011 - a less than 5 per cent increase from 2010 to 2011.
By contrast, S Pass holders increased from 98,000 in 2010 to 113,000 in 2011 - up 15 per cent. And Employment Pass holders increased from 142,000 to 176,000, or 24 per cent.
Singapore Business Federation chief operating officer Victor Tay noted that the influx of Malaysians was reduced significantly a few years ago.
Businesses then turned to mainland Chinese workers, he said. But China is also rapidly industrialising and supply is diminishing. "Our requirements for Chinese workers are also higher. There are quotas and they need to be competent in English."
Not all companies face the Malaysian and Chinese crunch.