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Wong, a Malaysian media professional, had only completed her second year in Singapore when she learned she had to quit in 30 days. Her work pass – which included executive, administrative, and specialized positions – was about to expire, and improvements to the city state’s international labor laws implemented last year meant the 34-year-old no longer paid enough to be qualified for the same pass.

International Population Singapor

Her employer refused to raise her monthly pay by more than $1,000, which was needed to retain the same form of visa provided Wong’s education and experience, so she applied for the lower-tier “S pass” instead last October. However, Wong, who requested to be called only by her initials, said the application had not been accepted by the time her visa expired on January 7.So she gathered her belongings, terminated her mortgage, and left Singapore. “It was really stressful and nerve-racking for me because I couldn’t just sit around waiting for my S pass to be approved,” Wong told This Week In Asia. “If it was rejected, I wouldn’t have time to pack up two years of my life.

”Singapore’s economy shrank by 5.4% last year, the most since the country’s independence in 1965, although overall jobs dropped by the most in more than two decades. Nonetheless, the government’s four spending programs totaling $100 billion shielded residents from employment cuts.

Wong, whose effort to move jobs and secure a new work permit early last year was refused by the government, is one of 181,500 foreigners who have felt the full effect of job losses.Indeed, non-residents accounted for the entire employment loss in the island state, and those who lost their jobs made up 4.7 percent of Singapore’s total population, or 12.7 percent of its foreign employees.Low-skilled foreign employees, such as those in construction or manufacturing, were the hardest hit, accounting for roughly 76% of employment losses, followed by S-pass holders (mid-level technical personnel earning a minimum of $2,500 per month), who accounted for 14%. The remaining 10% is job pass holders, who would now receive at least $4,500 a month due to adjustments made last year.

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The foreign-worker migration triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has exceeded both the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, when only 8,900 foreigners in Singapore were laid off, and the 43,000 that were laid off in the aftermath of the dotcom crash in 2000.However, economists such as Selena Ling, head of treasury analysis and policy at OCBC Bank, claim that the lack of foreign employment is not special to Singapore.

The number of visas given to international workers in Hong Kong fell by more than 60% in the first half of 2020; Kuwait has announced it would fire half of its foreign employees in government ministries and hire locals instead; and the United Arab Emirates is expected to lose one-tenth of its foreign citizens as jobs are cut.

Labour crunch
According to economist Walter Theseira of Singapore University of Social Sciences, minimizing foreign labor during an economic downturn is a way of “exporting the socioeconomic costs of unemployment to source countries,” as jobless immigrants are expected to return home.

Still, the lack of foreigners could lead to a labor shortage until the economy recovers, according to OCBC’s Ling – while Theseira said some tightness in Singapore’s labor market was beneficial for the “near future” because it would allow employers to consider Singaporeans first before recruiting foreigners.Despite the fact that local jobs increased, many of the openings presently available in the city state were of the “less desirable” variety due to a job-to-skill imbalance, according to Theseira. Some were often unpaid or contract positions funded by budget measures, such as social-distancing ambassadors charged with advising people to wear face masks to stop crowding.Longer term, analysts believe that Singapore, which has only 4 million inhabitants and permanent residents and relies on more than 1 million foreign employees – 1.43 million in pre-pandemic 2019 – will continue to recruit talent from all over the world to stay competitive. According to Theseira, there is “no way” for the workforce to expand or stay stable without immigration.

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“Fertility is just too poor, and the majority of Singaporeans who are willing to work are already working,” he said.Moreover, international talent, “all of which contribute to Singapore in its global role,” said Deng Liuchun of the Yale NUS College economist, could also bring in cross-border relationships, business know-how, scientific insights and cultural diversity. Deng said that it was also not clear whether highly educated employees would refuse to return to Singapore, where “people see the danger of operating with a city where a pandemic will lead to a true financial tsunami.”Due to our salaries, careers and high levels of living, the availability of foreign workers to Singapore to get to work is excessive.Walter Theseira, Economist
DBS senior economist Irvin Seah said that Singapore may also have a hunch, with highly qualified employees remotely and headcounts not in the region. He sees this as “a chance to minimize dependence on migrant jobs.”

For certain businesses working in cities where permits for immigrants are difficult to procure and lodging is costly, the pandemic has provided an incentive to station their headcount remotely.Spotify revealed in February that it was introducing a “work-from-anywhere” program for all workers, which would remain in effect until after Covid-19. This enables them to operate from either country or city. Stripe has also told workers who want to leave San Francisco, New York, or Seattle that they will accept a salary cut as well as a one-time bonus of US$20,000 (S$26,900). Meanwhile, according to a Manhattan Institute poll, almost half of New Yorkers making more than $100,000 per year have considered leaving the city to operate remotely from a lower-cost spot.

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Quality of life
Ella Sherman, a Knight Frank property agent who specializes in expatriates in addition to her day job in human resources, said she heard of an expat lawyer hired by a Singapore law firm who left for Britain during the pandemic so she and her husband could be closer to their children who were in boarding school there. She has been able to continue operating remotely, but she still keeps her home in Singapore since they plan to return.
Sherman said the lawyer’s example was not an isolated one. “Many people are having double lives and double costs,” she said.Julia Radchenko, Asia Pacific’s regional global mobility lead for Mercer, said the “superstar roles” offshoring was only anecdotal for the moment and she had no clear proof of Singapore businesses doing so. Indeed, because of the handling of the pandemic, she believes creativity will continue to reach Singapore.
“It remains to be seen if big cities will lose their shine. After all they have infrastructure, access to educational and medical facilities, access to physically happening events, access to offices and networking on their side,” Radchenko said. She has noticed that those willing to relocate for work are reconsidering their preferences and “their top picks largely mirror countries’ success in managing Covid-19 outbreaks”.

“While the countries that manages the coronavirus reasonably well including Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand, the US has enjoyed a rise in popularity,” Radchenko said.Added Theseira: “Because of our wages, career opportunities, and high standard of living, there is excess supply of foreign manpower interested in moving to Singapore for work.”

Wong, for example, is still hopeful she can find a job in Singapore and move back. “I have friends, a life, and Singapore has a better quality of life,” she said.


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