How To Avoid Losing Your Job To Cheap (Foreign) Labour

Lady at Computer


You might have heard this before: “We are slow to hire, but quick to fire” (said one smug HR manager to me during a job interview) OR “He’s too expensive for this company to keep; fire him and we can hire someone half his age and at a third of his salary” (said one penny-pinching boss). The same boss often boasts about hiring a foreigner with a Master’s degree and paying the person just S$2000/month, and says local graduates need to adjust their expectations downwards and not be so demanding and self-entitled.

How can PMEs thrive in the workplace, demonstrate that they have skills and talents that their companies should appreciate and value (enough to keep them around, and pay them a decent wage), and become more than just a ‘cost center’ on the company’s payroll? Essentially, how do you keep your head from ‘rolling’ when the retrenchment or dismissal ‘axe’ comes swinging?

How’s how I’d suggest you avoid losing your job to ‘cheap labour’…

#1: Remain Relevant

First, just as our economy has to remain relevant and competitive so as to thrive in this ever-changing world, PMEs also have to ensure that they keep upgrading their skills and knowledge base to stay relevant and useful (even attempting to reach that holy grail of being ‘indispensable’) to the company, and to constantly learn, unlearn and relearn.

I have friends who end up being the coffee ‘runner’ or the unofficial person to man the photocopier or do silly tasks like moving the boss’s flashy car to the proper parking spots when the “Summons Auntie” comes around to hand out summons for illegal parking. While it undoubtedly gives the employee a sudden ‘break’ during the busy work day, by having him go ‘shift’ the car, does it aid in the employee’s productivity at work, or ensure that his skills and knowledge are utilized for the benefit of the company (and not just the boss)?

Even if you are a young PME, it doesn’t mean you are cheap labour and can be used for menial tasks, especially those that seem to indicate that the company does not value your contributions and ‘worth’. Are you being ‘underemployed’ at work? How can you demonstrate to the bosses that you are a valuable employee? What sort of skills – communication, leadership, teamwork, etc – do you need to learn and master in order to progress in your career, and away from doing menial tasks? Will you be able to utilize SkillsFuture to your benefit?

#2: Know Your Rights

Are you being bullied or harassed at work? Has a colleague gone on leave (e.g. maternity leave) or been fired, and his/her work given to you to do, with no pay increment? Many of my friends complain about being given additional tasks because an employee has quit or was fired. Instead of hiring a new worker, the company simply divides the workload among those employees who remain. This is highly unfair and causes the employees to do more work while receiving the same pay, perhaps even having to put in extra hours at work, while the company reaps the benefits of not having to pay that one person’s salary, CPF contributions and saves on the allowances that the employee should have been given.

I’ve already blogged about how I was denied my CPF monies, and how the CPF Board helped me get that 5-figure sum back. But I do know that many other people are not so fortunate.

Do you know of anyone who was fired because she got pregnant? Have you heard of employees who are given additional duties (e.g. working on weekends) when it’s not part of the employment contract they signed? Do you know the lies that employers spin regarding CPF contributions so they can avoid paying you what they should? Do you know how to seek help from your union, NTUC and the authorities when such unfortunate situations happen to you?

#3: Report Companies Which Have Weak Singaporean Core

Yes, there are jobs which Singaporeans shun and which we need foreign talent or foreign workers for. Some examples include construction workers, cleaners, nursing home staff, security officers, grasscutters, etc.

I would argue that there are other job positions that Singaporeans are willing and able to accept, but which are given to foreigners who command a lower wage or are willing to work for longer hours or be given fewer monetary and non-monetary benefits. For instance, there are even complaints about HR managers being foreigners, who end up hiring more new staff of the same nationality, and giving Singaporeans a miss unfairly!

With regard to the foreign talent hired, especially in culprit sectors like finance and the IT industry, we must ensure that Singaporeans are considered fairly! Where the Fair Consideration Framework should fail or be shown to be inadequate, we should have an Employment Pass quota for these culprit sectors! This idea of quotas is neither mine, nor is it new…

Here’s the MyPaper article in which Labour MP Patrick Tay mentioned this idea in 2011:

MyPaper article

He calls this a PME Dependency Ratio (similar to that for work permits and S passes), and wants this to be implemented for problem sectors which have weak Singaporean core (like Chennai Changi Business Park) and a weak commitment to hire and develop Singaporeans.

We also need to do our part to watch out for discriminatory hiring practices and report these companies to NTUC and MOM to investigate if they should be penalized for discriminating against good Singaporean workers.

Finally, I think that cheap foreign labour will be here to stay. Mitigate the risk that this poses to your ‘ricebowl’ by ensuring you remain top of your game. Make it a foolish decision for the company to dispense with you in favor of a new, cheaper hire from overseas.

Build on your strengths. For instance, the quality of the education we have received in schools and universities here stand us in good stead. Many Singaporeans are effectively bilingual, and many more have experience working and studying overseas. Yes, Indian nationals are favored in the IT and banking sector. Yes, Filipino nationals are often selected for customer-facing roles in F&B, retail, and even in call centers. But we have a solid foundation in the English Language, and many of us are conversant in Mandarin. If you need an ‘upgrade’, go and take a course in Mandarin for business purposes. If you need to learn a third language, do it.

Just as foreigners can come to our shores seeking employment and a better life, we can likewise spread our wings overseas and take up higher-paying regional and international positions. After all, the world is your oyster. You are by no means confined to our small red dot of an island. 🙂