SINGAPORE - The head of one of the world's biggest professional recruitment firms thinks it's "a bit of a shame" for Singapore to tighten its rules on foreign workers.
"Singapore has always been a melting pot culturally and business-wise," says Robert Walters, founder and chief executive of Robert Walters. "The government has done a fantastic job of encouraging companies to come here. If anything makes it a bit more protectionistic, it would change for the worse things Singapore has stood for in the past 15-20 years."
London-based Mr Walters, who is visiting the Robert Walters office here, said that the market should be given free play in the movement of labour.
But Robert Walters' Singapore operations are not affected by the recent move to tame the inflow of foreign workers, said Andrea Ross, its managing director.
"A high proportion of the talent we place with clients are locals," she says.
In any case, the more stringent foreign worker policies - designed to boost Singapore's sluggish productivity growth in recent years and the earnings of low-wage workers - are targeted mostly at low-end jobs. Robert Walters, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has some 48 offices in 23 countries, deals mostly with the placement of professionals and senior executives.
Its Singapore business remains buoyant, even as the economy slows down.
While the volume of hirings that it does for the financial sector has plunged, largely because of the credit squeeze, Ms Ross said that the Singapore office is "still very busy" with jobs in the procurement, engineering, property and the fast-moving consumer goods sectors. It has its hands full with assignments to recruit contract workers and mid-level employees, she added.
Mr Walters said that the recruitment business is not a good barometer of the health of the larger economy because when it comes to staff requirements, there are always "exceptions".
"Even when you have a freeze in headcount, you have exceptions to it," he said. Mr Walters noted that Robert Walters' operations in Tokyo expanded tremendously during the past two decades of recession in Japan.
After 27 years in the business, Robert Walters still deals mainly with local placements. This makes sense because recruitment has not kept pace with business which has gone more global, according to Mr Walters. Political barriers may play a part, but it's also the reluctance of people to seek jobs that are further afield.
"It's a myth that people move internationally to find jobs," Mr Walters says. "They move internationally to build careers. That's the difference."
The same also applies to the young who bear the brunt of high unemployment, like that in Europe, he said.
"I've got a son who's 24, he's an actor, and he's got friends who do all sorts of things," Mr Walters said. "None of them is moving internationally."
Most people in his part of the world are not looking for jobs abroad just because things are tough there, he says. "They've got a family, they've got kids in schools. And it's very rare their skill sets can be transferred to another country."
Yet in his home city of London, guest workers seem to have replaced locals in many of the shops, restaurants and offices.
But London is a "unique" case, Mr Walters said. "People love London.
It's multi-cultural, it's interesting. It's a big city, it's easy to buy a property there, the tax rate (is relatively low) and it's safe and secure."
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