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With COVID-19 border restrictions, Singapore unable to ‘adequately replace’ outgoing migrant workers: MOM

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SINGAPORE: Singapore has not been able to “adequately replace” migrant workers who have left the country over the last year, given the presence of COVID-19 border restrictions, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Tuesday (May 18).

In a statement to the media, the ministry said there have been recent calls by members of the public to close Singapore’s borders “entirely” to bring down the number of imported infections.

“At the same time, businesses have been appealing for more workers to be allowed to enter Singapore to address manpower shortages,” the statement added.

According to MOM, the outflow of migrant workers over the last year has exceeded the inflow, as workers ended their contracts and chose to return home.

“As a result of border restrictions to mitigate importation risks, we have not been able to adequately replace those who have left Singapore,” said the ministry.

IMPACT OF NOT ALLOWING ANY MIGRANTS IN WOULD HAVE BEEN “SEVERE”

MOM said the impact of not allowing any migrant workers to enter Singapore after the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” last year would have been “severe” for businesses and families.

Had this happened, the ministry said there would now be:

– 70,000 fewer migrant workers working in the services sector, including essential services such as healthcare and cleaning

– 30,000 fewer construction workers working on key infrastructure and building projects

– 30,000 fewer migrant domestic workers

In response to CNA’s queries, MOM clarified that these figures include work permit and S Pass holders in the construction and services sectors, as well as foreign domestic workers on work permits.

The ministry also referred to data available on its website, stating the total number of foreign workers in Singapore. As of December 2020, there were 1.23 million migrant workers in the country, down from 1.43 million a year before.

The latest figure includes 177,100 employment pass holders, 174,000 S Pass holders, 247,400 foreign domestic workers, as well as 311,000 work permit holders in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors.

MOM also said in its statement: “Border restrictions will impact Singaporeans’ daily lives and this will be felt more keenly in the coming weeks and months.”

Since May 2, long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with travel history to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the last 14 days have been barred from entry or transit in Singapore. A similar ban has applied to India since Apr 24.

The decision was taken after a deterioration in the COVID-19 situation in India, with the infection spreading to the surrounding countries, co-chair of the COVID-19 task force Lawrence Wong said, announcing the move.

FIRMS TRYING TO RETAIN EXISTING WORKERS, BUT MANY ARE “HOMESICK”

The Manpower Ministry on Tuesday said many businesses are trying to hold on to existing workers.

“We agree it makes sense to try to retain our existing workers. Indeed, many businesses are already doing so”, with firms offering workers higher retention bonuses and industry associations facilitating transfers of workers to new employers, said MOM.

“However, many migrant workers are understandably homesick, are worried about their families at home and wish to return home,” it added.

READ: Singapore reviewing if more can be done to help firms hit by labour crunch, entry curbs – Tan See Leng

READ: Virus variant from India ‘concerning’ as infections could spread ‘quickly and widely’, says Gan Kim Yong

Since February this year, all newly arrived work permit and S Pass workers in construction, marine and process sectors from higher-risk countries and regions have been subject to an additional seven days of testing on top of a 14-day stay-home notice.

Those headed to dormitories regardless of sector have also been placed under the additional testing regime since January.

This means all such workers, upon arrival, will have to stay at a designated facility for 21 days.

After the three-week period, they are immediately placed on the rostered routine testing regime alongside other workers.

RESTRICTIONS ON INCOMING WORKERS LIKELY TO “PERSIST FOR SOME TIME”

Singapore’s restrictions on the inflow of workers from higher-risk countries will “likely persist for some time, until the situation improves. This is the only way we can ensure the safe inflow of workers, while managing the risk of transmission in the community,” said MOM.

“We are mindful of the manpower crunch that our businesses will face, and the caregiving help that our families will need, as a result.”

Following the tightening of border restrictions on May 2, several firms told CNA that companies that have traditionally relied on migrant workers from India and Bangladesh were looking further afield for labour. But they added that they were just starting to explore the options and to expect project delays and disruptions for the time being.

Stakeholders in Singapore’s construction industry on Monday also appealed to the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force to allow foreign workers to enter Singapore “in a safe and controlled manner”. The Construction Industry Joint Committee said that the current manpower situation may result in further delays to construction projects and could cause jobs to be lost in the industry. It has asked the Government “to adopt a balanced approach and work with industry to allow the recruitment and inflow of foreign manpower”.

Mr Wong has also said that Build-to-Order (BTO) housing projects are expected to be delayed by a year or more, as a result of tighter border measures affecting the construction sector.

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