Editorial: Giving Singaporean workers a fairer chance

SINGAPORE - Under the Ministry of Manpower's new rules, companies will soon have to prove that they tried to hire Singaporeans first before they are allowed to recruit foreign professionals. Key to that exercise will be the creation of a government-run jobs bank.

With foreigners costing more as well under the rules, the move should assuage the concerns of professionals, managers and executives here. Their complaints have centred lately on the perception of discriminatory treatment, based on nationality, received at the hands of some employers.

There was a crying need to deal with malpractices, and the Fair Consideration Framework seeks to do so by institutionalising a mechanism that would make such attempts by short-sighted employers more difficult. This can help to make the entry of foreign workers more palatable to Singaporeans because they will be seen as supplementing rather than supplanting the local workforce.

The framework does not inaugurate a compulsory "Hire Singaporeans First" policy, let alone a "Hire Singaporeans Only" one. That would be out of character for a globalised city-state which thrives on its openness to foreign labour as much as it does on foreign investment and technology. Singaporean employees by and large understand that they benefit collectively from the status quo.

But the quid pro quo, where employers are concerned, is that Singaporeans must stand a fair chance of competing with foreigners in their own country. Nationality-based discrimination goes against notions of fair play, impartiality and meritocracy. The authorities will have to implement the new framework rigorously. Employers must support the jobs initiative genuinely and not place advertisements in the jobs bank just for form's sake.

Apart from ethical considerations, Singapore employers should focus on skills and productivity in building up a core national workforce. Such a core will be stable over the long run compared to the comings and goings of foreigners and it will help prevent the social environment from deteriorating because of tensions between locals and foreigners.

Singaporean employees, on their part, would be unwise to see the new jobs framework as a template for protectionism. If the pendulum swings too far towards restricting the entry of foreign workers, particularly in a tight labour market, standards might drop and investors will look elsewhere.

Indeed, the authorities should ensure that the new rules inspire confidence in the Singapore worker that he stands a fair chance at a job and in the employer that the system is not cumbersome. Regulations are necessary to protect the legitimate interests of labour - in this case Singapore workers - and a healthy economy depends on allowing the labour market to remain responsive to the laws of supply and demand.

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