'Premature' to pin Little India riot on labour tensions, Singapore minister says

Manpower chief refuses to speculate on cause of unrest but vows continued tightening on influx of foreign workers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:55pm

Singapore, unsettled by its first riot in more than four decades that involved 400 foreign workers, will continue to tighten the influx of overseas labourers, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin.

While foreign labour has contributed to the growth of the economy, there has been a cost, including a strain on infrastructure, Tan, 44, said in an interview last week. The government is also keen to boost the productivity of local companies, he said.

“We are continuing to tighten our manpower policies because we do want to move to a leaner approach,” Tan said.

Asked whether poor living conditions contributed to the riot and if the government would step up measures to ensure foreign workers’ well-being and safety after the incident, he said “it’s premature to conclude that actually it’s because of all these other deep-seated reasons and therefore the riot happened”.

I’m not denying that there are egregious cases; there are, I see them myself. But ... I think by and large, workers here are reasonably looked after 
Tan Chuan Jin, manpower minister

Discontent over the number of foreign workers, who make up about one-third of the workforce, has risen after years of open immigration and led to the worst election result for the ruling party since independence.

The riot that broke out on the night of December 8 in the Little India district after a bus ran over and killed an Indian national has reignited the debate about Singapore’s dependence on overseas manpower.

A survey conducted in 2011 by the government among work-permit holders showed 90 per cent were “relatively happy” to be in Singapore, 80 per cent wanted to stay and about 70 per cent were happy to recommend their friends and family to come to Singapore, Tan said.

Dispute cases

“It was a fairly large sample size and that has pretty much been echoed by the feedback we’ve been getting,” Tan said. “In the aftermath of the riot, again we’ve pushed out to find out the sentiments and it’s quite consistent.”

Thirty-three people have been charged in relation to the 8 riot, according to the police. The government banned the sale and consumption of alcohol this past weekend in Little India, which draws thousands of foreign workers on their Sunday day off.

Tan said the nature of the rioters and where they are from did not indicate that labour relations contributed to the riot.

“I’m not denying that there are egregious cases; there are, I see them myself,” Tan said. “But I wouldn’t therefore paint that picture of the entire landscape. I think by and large, workers here are reasonably looked after and we will go after employers that mistreat their workers.”

Singapore authorities prosecuted five Chinese nationals and deported 29 others over their involvement in an illegal strike in November last year, an unusual public display of labour discord.

The striking workers, all from China, were unhappy with their salary increments and raised concerns about living conditions, according to their employer, SMRT Corp.

The manpower ministry has had about 3,700 dispute cases over issues including salary and work conditions brought to them this year, Tan said. There are around 1.1 million lower-skilled foreign workers in Singapore, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

In September, the city widened measures to contain foreign- worker inflows to include professional jobs, responding to complaints that companies were hiring overseas talent at the expense of locals. In February, the government said that companies must pay higher levies for lower-skilled foreign employees over the next two years and cut the proportion of overseas workers in some industries.

“We’re beginning to see it take effect, the pain is being felt by companies,” Tan said. “You do not know when exactly, at which point it will bite and you don’t want to overdo it, but a series of measures have been unfolding over the last few years.”

Singapore added 33,100 jobs in the third quarter and the unemployment rate was 1.8 per cent in the same period, the Ministry of Manpower said in a report on December 13. The labour market will remain tight next year and the government expects some upward wage pressure next year, Ministry of Manpower divisional director Adrian Chua said last month.

The island’s population has jumped by more than 1.1 million since mid-2004 to around 5.4 million, driven by immigration, leading to congestion and competition for housing, jobs and education at a time of widening income inequality. A proposal to boost the population to 6.9 million by 2030 prompted thousands to protest in February.