Singapore - A protectionist policy of retrenching foreign workers before Singaporeans will not work in an open economy like ours, said panelists at last Tuesday's Conference on Fair Employment Practices.
During the discussion titled "Managing manpower fairly and responsibly during the economic downturn", one participant raised the question of protectionism and if retrenching foreign workers before citizens was considered to be a fair employment practice.
However, the four panel participants from various employment agencies were unanimous when they said the policy was not feasible due to Singapore's open economy, and could even do more harm than good.
Speaking in his personal capacity, Ong Yen Her, divisional director of labour relations and workplaces division at Ministry of Manpower said that while companies might be able to "get away" with axing foreign workers in this recession, the organisation might face repercussions and find it difficult to recruit from this demographic pool after the economy picks up.
Bob Tan, co-chairperson for Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment and Practices said when businesses establish operations here in Singapore, they already have the intention of staffing their workforce with both local and foreign talent. And even if Singaporeans may cost more to hire, some companies may choose to let their foreign workers go during a retrenchment exercise because the company may want to build up a strong pool of Singaporean workers, Tan added. At the same time, there might be foreign workers who are "critical to the operation of the business" and a business might fold without them.
Instead of implementing protectionist policies, the key is to make Singaporean workers more competitive, Ong said. He cited the SPUR and the Jobs Credit Scheme programmes as measures which aim to keep Singaporeans employable through developing their skills.
While Tan acknowledges the fact that companies may eventually have to cull employee numbers, he said: "If you do have to let some go, the spirit of fair employment is an important one. If you do it [retrenchments] properly, transparently and for the right reasons, the people who stay will work even harder because you have seen the bad times with them."