Comparing foreign worker policy between S’pore and the US

October 17, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Dear Dr Chee,

Many have rightly complained about the “foreign talent” policy of Singapore. This policy of indiscriminately permitting foreigners to enter Singapore in large numbers is clearly hurting local Singaporeans born and bred in Singapore. All countries in the world give more rights to their citizens over foreigners. Only in Singapore is there this odd situation where the foreigner in fact is treated better than the Singaporean.

I am a lawyer practicing in California, specializing in Immigration. The laws in the United States clearly favors the American over any foreigner in employment. And I think, rightly so.

In Singapore, any employer can employ foreigners at any salary, and bring in as many workers as they want, merely by articulating a need for them, and by showing that they have the ability to pay them. There is no law regulating the pay they have to be paid and the number coming into Singapore. This means that, invariably, Singapore employers pay lower wages for foreign workers. Most of these foreign workers come from poorer countries than Singapore. This increases the profits of the Singapore employers. But it hurts the local Singaporeans who expect a higher wage commensurate to their higher expenses and good lifestyle that they are accustomed to and deserve. A Singaporean has a HDB flat to pay for, higher expenses for food and for children, perhaps a car and holidays. After all, Singapore is theirs and they have worked hard for a good standard of living. But this totally unjust policy of indiscriminate admission of low paying foreign workers causes their life styles to suffer, causes Singaporeans job losses and suffering all around. The only people who gain are the Singapore employers who can now make more money, because they now have to pay lower wages.

Let me tell you how the US labor and immigration laws work. A foreigner can come to the US to work in one of 2 ways. Either as a Non-Immigrant temporary worker for maximum work durations of 5 to 7 years or through immigrating to the US with a Green Card. A Green Card is permanent Residence. In both cases, the American is clearly preferred over foreigners.

For the Non-Immigrant Class, only persons with at least a Bachelor’s degree can apply. The non-immigrant route is usually preferred over the Immigrant route because the alien comes here faster and because the non-immigrant visa can be converted to the Green Card while the foreigner is in the US. The US does not permit unlimited numbers to enter the US and they have quotas. In the H1B category, the most popular non-immigrant class, the maximum visas issued per fiscal year is 65,000.00. Second, the employer has to show that he is willing to pay the worker and has the means to pay the local prevailing wage for that employment in the particular geographical area of the US.

For instance, in the San Francisco Bay area where I am, the prevailing wage for a Software Engineer is US$60,000.00 per year. This way, the American worker is protected in that the foreigner must be paid at least this wage, which the American worker gets. Second, the numbers entering the US is controlled. This is a fair and just system.

Now compare Singapore’s system.

For the Immigrant Work Visas, the procedure is more complicated and rigorous. First it takes much longer, from 1 to 3 years for the process. Second, the employer has to show by documentation that he has used adequate methods and tried to recruit US workers for the last 6 months and was not able to fill the post. Take a Chinese Restaurant. The Restaurant owner has tried all kinds of advertising to fill a position in his restaurant of Cook. He cannot find a local Chinese cook. He can file an application for a Chinese cook from Hong Kong to work for him. If his documentation shows that he cannot find a local US cook, his application for the foreigner will be approved. He has also to show that he is prepared to pay the prevailing wage for this Cook so that he cannot get away by undercutting US wages.

When the occupation is unionized, in addition to the above, you have to get the consent of the union before the US Dept of Labor gives approval. Also in this case as always, there are yearly quotas of number of visas to be issued, so that there is no flooding of the work place by foreigners in the United States.

You can see that the US has this well thought out and fair system of admitting foreigners for work and the American worker is treated better than foreigners wanting to work here. This is how it should be.

The Singapore Government may falsely argue that their system of bringing in cheap workers is needed to keep production costs down to compete with low cost neighboring countries. This argument is wrong and has been constantly rejected by USA and other countries. USA has always said that the way to compete is not by suppressing wages. It is the responsibility of the US employer, they say, to improve production by automation and other scientific methods. Not by cheap labor which hurts the American worker.

GOPALAN NAIR

Fremont, California, USA