Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Thursday took aim at the Workers’ Party (WP) for shifting its position on foreign workers in Singapore.
He pointed to speeches made by WP MPs Low Thia Khiang and Chen Show Mao over the past two days of debate in Parliament.
Both Aljunied GRC MPs had raised concerns that the Government’s tightening of the inflow of foreign workers will have adverse consequences on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and lead to inflation for services like public health care.
They had also criticised its twin levers controlling the numbers – the dependency ratio ceilings (DRCs) and levies – as being ‘too blunt’, and asked for more calibration based on the needs of each sector.
In his speech summing up the debate, Mr Tharman accused the WP of taking a different tack from its earlier position, as stated in its manifesto for last May’s general election and in speeches by its MPs in previous years. Then, it had criticised the Government for allowing in too many foreign workers, he said.
‘I think your position now accords with ours and recognises that this is a very careful balance,’ he said, referring to the trade-off between curbing foreign worker numbers and economic growth as well as the concerns of SMEs.
This was swiftly countered by WP chief Mr Low, who rose at the end of Mr Tharman’s speech to deny any shift.
‘Nowhere, inside or outside of this House, have we said that Singapore does not need foreign workers,’ he said.
The WP’s main complaint has been that foreign workers are taking away Singaporeans’ jobs and depressing their wages, he said. Its GE manifesto had stated that foreign worker inflow must be fine-tuned to the specific industry, he added.
Mr Tharman replied that there is a difference between the WP’s earlier view that there had been too many foreign workers let in for low-end sectors, and its current expression of concern at how fast quotas are being tightened in these same areas.
‘Your recent comments… did recognise that even at the lower end, this has to be a very careful balance and that, I think, shares our perspective.’
He added: ‘I hope this sting that you’ve taken out of your earlier criticism is not just a political strategy because you know that there’s sensitivity on the ground among SMEs (about the curbs).
‘(I hope it) also recognises the more basic reality, which is that the growth of foreign workers in Singapore has not only benefited SMEs but it has also benefited Singaporeans’ incomes.’
Regarding foreigners taking jobs from locals, the minister said ‘there will always be competition in individual jobs’, but overall, the strategy of letting in foreign workers has raised Singaporeans’ real incomes over the last decade.
‘So it has been a successful strategy,’ he said. ‘You were wrong in criticising the Government for a strategy of allowing companies to stay competitive and grow using foreign workers.’
Mr Tharman also delved into why the Government will not differentiate DRCs by sector, as suggested by the WP MPs.
He said that being liberal with some sectors would hobble the goal of boosting productivity. It is precisely in those industries crying out for more foreign workers where productivity improvements are most desperately needed, he added.
Quotas by sector would also give certain firms unfair advantages over others on the ground, he noted, and cause smaller firms to lose out to bigger ones that can ‘classify’ themselves favourably to get more foreign workers.
Mr Low said he was not convinced, saying: ‘We need micro-management and not just macro-management. Each industry has its own features, its own difficulties. Foreign workers are a lifeline to (some of) them, at least for now.’
Mr Tharman replied, saying that such an approach will lead to ‘faster foreign worker growth, lower productivity growth and, thirdly, some unfairness between firms – which I’m sure you didn’t intend’.