The reality for transient foreign workers is this: When times are good, you are hired to work in Singapore to help build this cosmopolitan city. When times are bad, expect to be the first to be sent packing.
This was revealed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the ministerial forum where the government’s stand on the role of transient foreign workers was spelled out in no uncertain terms.
According to PM Lee, in wake of one of the toughest crises experienced by Singapore to date, transient foreign workers bore the brunt of the severe job losses in the first half of 2009.
“And why did it happen? Because the impact was absorbed by the foreign workers and the shrinkage in the work force was taken up by the foreign workers,” he said, “and we have 20,000 foreign workers net; (some) lost their jobs, left, gone away, and they have absorbed and buffered us from the impact.”
Currently, transient workers, employed solely for work purposes, comprise slightly more than half of close to a million foreigners working in Singapore, with more than 100,000 foreigners introduced to the labour force annually in recent years.
Meanwhile, during this same six-month period of crisis this year, PM Lee revealed a little known fact that the number of Singaporeans employed has gone up – with a net employment gain of about 7000.
However, he stressed that this policy of hire-and-fire affects transient workers in particular as they are foreigners hired specifically for work in sectors that Singaporeans typically shun.
And he added these are the workers who not here in Singapore as long-term immigrants because transient workers are solely hired to work and do not settle here for the long run as citizens or as permanent residents.
“More than half of our non-citizens are in fact foreign workers like this. They are here temporarily as long as the economy needs them,” PM Lee said.
“Most of them are transient foreign workers, here to work, not to strike roots,” he said.
Not only do such foreigners serve as a buffer during slumps, their resources can be tapped during periods of economic boom to develop Singapore into a vibrant and economically robust city comparable to New York and Shanghai, he said.
However, Singapore’s casual approach towards employing and dispensing of foreign labour is unsettling.
Mr Roy Wu, a third-year Electrical and Electronic Engineering major at NTU feels such a move would appear to take the efforts of foreigners lightly.
Regarding transient foreign workers absorbing the impact of the weakened economy, Mr Wu said, “As a foreigner, I would feel insecure and feel quite discriminated.”
“Foreigners are a buffer in the work force and used for growing the economy,” he said. “They come to work and when the economy is not good, they are asked leave.”
But others feel that the casual treatment of foreign workers is just one issue among many others.
Ms Felicia Liu, a recent graduate from the National University of Singapore, said the issues faced by foreign workers are triple-fold. Many of them not only rely on a strong economy to find employment but are also subjected to fierce competition among themselves and realise that they are not welcomed the moment there is a downturn.
Ms Liu, who is Singaporean, said, “Foreigners become dispensable goods to us. It is a tough reality for them and it makes some Singaporeans uneasy about how we can commoditise labour this way.”
However, Ms Eveline Danubrata, a final year student from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information said transient workers face tough circumstances whether they are working in Singapore or in other countries that employ them.
And this situation is not about to change.
Ms Danubrata, who has studied in Singapore for nine years and received her Permanent Resident status in 2007, said, “Foreign workers who go to another country to work, in Singapore or overseas, face the same kind of competition so it is not very different.”