For close to 18 years, Alvin (not his real name) worked hard to prove himself in the finance industry in Singapore, and eventually rose to a managerial role in a multinational bank here.
Yet, despite his best efforts – he won multiple awards and achieved a number of notable milestones throughout his career – Alvin’s dream of being promoted to a top position in the company never came to pass.
The now 52-year-old told The Pride that he felt this was because “companies in the (finance) industry prefer to fill the senior management roles with foreign talent”.
Frustrated at the lack of opportunities to progress in his career, Alvin decided to leave the country in search of greener pastures. He moved to Hong Kong in 2007, and today, is the chief investment officer of a renowned investment management firm there.
Alvin’s perception that many finance firms in Singapore adopt unfair employment practices may not be wide off the mark.
A recent report by The Straits Times highlighted that companies from the finance, information technology (IT) and international trading industries most likely formed the majority on a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) watchlist for not doing enough to hire Singaporeans.
According to Singapore’s Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, some 500 companies are currently on the watchlist.
Companies are put on the watchlist if they fail to adhere to the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF). Implemented in 2014 as part of the Government’s overall effort to strengthen the Singaporean core in the workforce, the FCF requires all companies in Singapore to comply with guidelines which will ensure locals are given a fair shot at job opportunities.
Speaking about this issue in Parliament earlier this month, Mr Lim said: “They (companies on the watchlist) have the preconceived idea that local PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) are either unable or unwilling to do the job, so they write them off without even considering them fairly.”
Companies who are on the watchlist will have their work pass privileges curtailed should they continue to flout the FCF guidelines.
But, will putting companies on the watchlist really deter them from adopting unfair hiring practices?
Mr David Ang, director of corporate services at human resource firm Human Capital (Singapore), thinks it will – but only to a certain extent.
“You can penalise companies for flouting the rules, but no one really benefits from that, and some companies who can afford the punishment won’t learn from that,” Mr Ang told The Pride. “You can make the rules stricter, or come up with new guidelines to make it harder for companies to adopt unfair hiring practices, but there will always be those who can find ways to circumvent it.
“Instead, I think an overall mindset change is needed so companies realise that adhering to fair employment practices will only paint them in a good light and boost their reputation, thus helping them attract the best talent anyway.”
The revelation that 500 companies are on the watchlist – double the number this time last year – has naturally outraged local netizens, who think they are being discriminated against by these firms in their own country.
However, Mr Ang said he understands it can sometimes be challenging to find the right local talent for a particular position, especially if it involves a unique set of skills or specialisation.
“The workplace has changed, and certain job scopes have evolved due to the impact of technology and technological advancements,” Mr Ang explained. “In particular, the three industries mentioned – finance, IT and trading – are experiencing a lot of disruptions at the moment, with things like artificial intelligence (AI) now playing a bigger role in their processes.
“So, some positions now require new skill sets that might not be readily available in the local workforce. As a result, companies have no choice but to resort to employing foreigners to fill that skill gap.”
But, apart from specialised white-collar professions, Mr Ang added that Singaporean companies also tend to look to foreign labour when it comes to hiring employees to do blue-collar jobs, especially in the construction, waste management, and service industries.
“It can be hard to attract Singaporeans to these blue-collar jobs because they’re perceived as ‘less glamorous’,” he said. “Therefore, we have to zero in on where the foreigners are being employed, and if companies have a good reason to explain (why their foreign employee count is high), then they won’t be unfairly branded (as having unfair hiring practices).”
Echoing Mr Ang’s sentiments, restaurant owner Mrs Marianne Tan outlined to The Pride some of the common difficulties she faces when it comes to hiring suitable local employees.
“Firstly, it’s not easy to find Singaporeans who are willing to work in the F&B (Food and Beverage) industry because it involves long hours – most of which will be spent on your feet – and physical exertion,” she said.
“Secondly, the market rate in terms of salary is never going to be as high as what people in white-collar jobs can earn, unless you set up your own F&B shop. Therefore, many Singaporeans would rather not work in the service industry and so, would prefer to pursue a different career path.
“For F&B owners, hiring short-term or part-time local staff also takes a toll on us, because we’ll have to spend time, and sometimes even money, to train them. Once they leave, we’ll have to start training new staff, and the cycle repeats itself.”
Still, Mr Ang acknowledged that it is important for companies, and in particular those on the watchlist, to ensure that fair employment practices are adopted.
“Any number (on the watchlist) is not good – there must be respect of human rights… we want to have fair treatment, we strive for equality, and we must not have any form of discrimination,” he said. “With Singapore considered a central business hub in this region, it also won’t do our image any good if our companies are branded as ‘unfair employers’.”
Mr Ang, however, said he would “hesitate” to go along with suggestions that cronyism is one of the reasons for why companies fall foul of the FCF.
“Sometimes, it’s natural that you would want to hire someone who you’ve worked with before because you then know exactly what to expect,” he explained. “If you hire someone new, you’re not sure if that person can produce the results you want, and whether he or she can work comfortably with you.”
Nonetheless, Mr Ang insists there is room for improvement in this area of fair employment practices. In particular, he highlighted that companies need to take the process of advertising job vacancies on the Workforce Singapore (WSG) administered Jobs Bank – a requisite of FCF – seriously.
He added that companies must provide opportunities for their local employees to upgrade themselves, while also ensuring that there is a reasonable pathway for them to rise to a more senior role.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mr Ang also recommends that Singaporeans upskill themselves, whenever possible, in order to increase their value as employees.
“Locals should find out what skills are lacking in their repertoire and look to plug that gap,” he advised. “Do some research on what the industry you want to work in is lacking, how it is going to evolve, and prepare for that.
“Make yourself such an attractive hire that companies won’t be able to reject you.”
Another common mistake Singaporeans make when looking for a new job is making “unrealistic demands” of companies – in terms of pay, benefits or job scope, Mr Ang observed.
Instead, he said it is better to grab the opportunity to “get your foot into the company”, where you can then “prove your worth” to your employers.
“If your company sees that you are value-adding to them, they’ll naturally want to keep you and will reward you accordingly,” Mr Ang said.
In other words, Mr Ang believes it will take the efforts of both employers and employees to finally solve the issue of unfair employment practices.
And perhaps, that’s the most important job we’ll need to take on first.