Sunday, November 30, 2008

FOCUS SINGAPORE: Foreign workers fear future

Many face retrenchment if economy gets worse

By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

Since he came here three years ago, Indian welder R. Baskaran, 25, has developed a ritual of visiting Little India every Sunday for a meal with friends and some shopping. For the past month, however, he has added a new activity to his Sunday itinerary - a visit to the temple.

'I pray that I will not lose my job. At work, I hear other workers talking about the company losing business and how they may fire people. I don't want to be sent home,' said the native of Tamil Nadu state.

Foreign workers have not been spared the jitters from talks of layoffs and pay cuts since the global financial turmoil hit Singapore last month. They fear that they will be the first to go in the event of massive retrenchment.

Although employers interviewed by The Sunday Times said they have not let their foreign workers go, they may have to if the economy gets worse.

Said the manager of a construction firm, who declined to be named: 'If we do not have projects to work on, how can we continue employing so many workers?'

The warning signs are already there. In a recent dialogue with Malay grassroots leaders, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he expected the number of foreign workers to stabilise or fall in most sectors with the economic slowdown.

The construction industry is expected to be hit hard, said

Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) executive director

Simon Lee, 'especially with private sector property developers post-poning building projects'.

The industry employs over 300,000 foreign workers. Latest figures show there are around 580,000 foreign labourers here and some 180,000 domestic maids.

A Ministry of Manpower (MOM) report in February said foreign workers are needed to fill jobs during the boom years - and they are the ones who will be shed in larger numbers in an economic downturn.

From 2001 to 2003, when Singapore was affected by the Sars crisis, foreign employment contracted by 71,600.

In 1998, following the Asian financial crisis, more than 7,000 foreign workers had their work permits cancelled because employers, affected by the downturn, had defaulted on levy payments, said MOM.

Maids, too, are worried about losing their jobs. Indonesian maid Nini Kuyadi, 25, has been warned by her employer that she may be sent home if he is retrenched.

'I feel very sad. I still want to work and support my parents back home,' she said.

During the last Asian financial crisis, the number of complaints from maids who were not paid nearly doubled from 165 in 1997 to 302 in 1998, MOM figures showed.

Many were sent home or returned to agencies to be transferred to another employer.

Some agencies are already seeing employers with financial troubles returning their maids.

In the past month, Mr Wilson Wang, director of Workforce International, has seen three or four such cases.

'These employers work as insurance and property agents, and they are badly affected by the crisis. There are also retrenched expats who cannot keep their maids because they have to leave the country,' he said.

Other maid agencies foresee there will be more such cases next year, when the economy is expected to worsen.

Service staff, too - many from the Philippines and China - worry for their future in Singapore.

With foreign visitor arrivals in Singapore falling for the third straight month in August, there could be retrenchments in restaurants and shops, said analysts.

Filipino service staff Angeline D., 28, is already looking for jobs in Dubai just in case she loses her customer service job in the telecommunications industry here.

'I can't afford to be out of job because I'm supporting my family back home. I will go any place that is willing to hire me,' she said.

Foreign workers fear future
Straits Times, Singapore