Singapore’s unloved Chinese labor boom

Shu-Ching Jean Chen

Low-skilled workers from China are ubiquitous in Singapore these days: in the shiny new terminal of Changi Airport, in coffee shops, in shopping malls, in supermarkets, at gas stations, at construction sites and populating the much-loved open-air food courts called hawker centers.

They also make their presence felt in five-star hotels, where one recent encounter found a Mandarin-speaking maid who could not comprehend a word of English. Most recently, Singapore’s two bus companies began hiring drivers from China.

Chinese workers are just one constituency in Singapore’s fast-growing foreign population, but they are the largest component of an expatriate contingent that crossed the 1 million mark in October, helping boost the overall population to 4.68 million in an otherwise chronically aging society. Foreigners make up about one-third of the national workforce. The country set a goal to raise its population total to 6.5 million within two decades, rejuvenating itself mainly through immigration from India and China.

But the sudden influx of workers from China appears to have taken ordinary Singaporeans by surprise, as the low-skilled and the elderly start to find themselves losing jobs to the newcomers. The tidal wave of mainland Chinese workers began last year, when Singapore relaxed its rules to allow more immigration to staff its service industries, part of its measures to address an acute labor shortage resulting from a boom in the construction, marine, manufacturing and services sectors. Beginning this year, Singaporean companies were allowed to draw on foreigners for up to 50% of their labor force; 10% can be Chinese nationals. Previously, the respective figures were 45% and 5%.

The government last year reckoned 450,000 jobs will be created in the next five years; the country’s annual birth rate is only 30,000.

As Chinese workers with distinct and varied provincial accents proliferate, so do natives’ complaints about their loudness and lack of mastery of English. Their popularity with the city-state’s employers, who like their work ethic and low wage expectations, further fuels resentment.

They threaten the job security of Singapore’s most unskilled, the low-wage workers who earn less than 1,200 Singapore dollars ($872.73) a month, numbering about 350,000. “There are so many of them everywhere, the mainland Chinese,” a taxi driver lamented. “They take away our jobs and force poor people to go unemployed.”

This month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tried to place the issue in context, arguing that the majority of Singaporeans have benefited from rising household incomes, a boon stemming from the country’s historically low unemployment rate. This follows four consecutive years of strong economic growth.

But labor activists view things differently. The Workers’ Party pointed out that Singaporeans are being left behind by the recent boom: more than 60% of the record 236,600 new jobs created last year went to foreigners.

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