(As published in Strait Times today Aug 15, 2011)
THE salary levels for foreign professionals to qualify for an Employment Pass (EP) are to be raised again, in a move by the Government to allay job concerns that continue to persist among white-collar Singaporeans.
The announcement of the impending change by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday comes less than two months after the qualifying salary levels for the pass were raised on July 1.
In addition, the educational qualifications for professionals seeking the EP will be tightened, Mr Lee said, to make sure ‘they come with real skills valuable to us’.
The stiffer criteria to be introduced is a move by the Government to help boost employment prospects among white-collar Singaporeans.
Details of the changes will be announced soon by the Ministry of Manpower, Mr Lee said in his National Day Rally speech.
The ministry will also work together with tripartite partners to develop fair and responsible recruitment and employment practices of foreign professionals, he added.
Last month, the Government raised the salary levels for three types of EP: Q, P2 and P1. The new levels are: $2,800 for Q (from $2,500); $4,000 for P2 ($3,500); and $8,000 for P1 ($7,000).
Explaining the need for another round of tightening, Mr Lee said he noted a prevailing worry among local professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) about job competition from foreign PMEs.
He said: ‘I understand the feelings. But we need some non-Singaporeans at all levels to complement Singaporeans and make up our shortfalls.
‘At the same time, we also realise that it is important Singaporeans remain the core of the workforce. We cannot become like the Gulf states, where 80 per cent of the workforce are foreigners.’
The changes further reinforce the Government’s ‘Singaporeans First’ policy that aims to assure locals they come first in three areas: housing, education and jobs.
But the move is not without pain to employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are reliant on foreign workers, noted Mr Lee.
He pledged that the Government would ‘do its utmost’ to help SMEs adjust, through measures such as grants and tax deductions to boost productivity.
His announcement on the EP last night comes in the wake of recent calls by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for more to be done for local professionals, in the light of rising foreign PME numbers.
The number of EP holders rose more than 20 per cent from 115,000 in 2009, to 142,000 last year.
Unionists say it is urgent to help local PMEs, whose numbers are set to climb further with higher educational levels. About 650,000 of the two-million resident workforce are PMEs.
Labour chief Lim Swee Say last week urged multinational corporations to be more pro-active in grooming local PMEs for high positions, saying it could make them more accepting of foreign PMEs working here.
NTUC director Patrick Tay had also proposed laws that would require employers to show they have tried all means but failed to hire locals before they can turn to foreigners to fill a vacancy.
Mr Lee yesterday also cautioned that ‘just because we’re tightening on foreign workers doesn’t mean automatically that Singaporeans will get better jobs or higher pay, because the competition isn’t just the foreign worker here’.
He listed potential trade-offs, like slower economic growth if companies are deterred from investing here or choose to relocate.
The president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, Mr Lawrence Leow, said companies would need sufficient time to adjust to the EP changes.
‘Also, hopefully the Government will take into account the on-the-job performances of foreign professionals already here when deciding whether to renew their employment passes under the new qualifications.’
He also expressed the hope that the stiffer EP criteria would not apply to foreign PMEs already working here, as it would mean raising their salary levels and that would, in turn, increase business costs.
NTUC’s Mr Tay welcomed Mr Lee’s announcement, saying ‘it was one step forward towards putting Singaporean PMEs first’.
But he added the NTUC is aware of the need to find the right balance in moderating the foreign worker supply, to ensure Singapore continues to attract investments.