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Part of Singapore’s skyline pictured at dusk on June 8. Photo: EPA

In Singapore, expatriates hit by coronavirus pay cuts, lay-offs fear for future

  • Foreign workers are expected to bear the brunt of the 200,000 redundancies economists forecast will be made in the city state by the end of the year
  • Some have already seen their jobs disappear, while others struggle to make ends meet as employers faced with a looming recession look to cut costs
Martha Liv used to think that living and working in Singapore would give her family a chance to save the money they needed to buy a home when they moved back to Europe. But ever since her husband was forced to take a 20 per cent pay cut in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the 36-year-old has been struggling to balance the books.

A request to reduce the S$2,700 (US$1,948) they pay in rent each month was rejected by their landlord, leaving Liv to try to find ways to stretch the remainder of her husband’s monthly pay packet – now S$6,000 before rent is paid.

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She shops at the wet market instead of the supermarket, buys regional ingredients rather than those imported from the West and manages the household while looking after their 17-month-old son without domestic help. “It’s not cheap living here,” she said. “We’re taking from our savings for our normal expenses. How many months can you live on your savings?”

But at least Liv’s family of three doesn’t have to leave in a hurry. Sabrina, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is in the midst of packing up her belongings after her husband was told by his employer that he would be sent back to the US. He used to manage the China operations of his company, which provides electronics manufacturing services, but now the couple has had to take their two sons – ages 7 and 11 – out of school in Singapore and Sabrina is preparing to homeschool them in the US. The family dog will be left behind until direct flights between the two countries resume.
A Singapore Airlines passenger jet seen at Changi International Airport on June 8. Photo: AFP

“I was in shock and denial and very angry,” Sabrina said. “Basically, all families from the company were being asked to repatriate and only essential people that needed to stay to continue the business in Singapore or with China would remain.”

Liv and Sabrina are not alone. Across Singapore, expatriates are facing employment uncertainty, with some having already lost their jobs. This is unusual for a city that is regularly ranked among the world’s most expensive and whose resident expatriates are better known for being paid eye-watering sums that led to one spending S$10,000 to rent a pool for a month during the partial lockdown that began in April.

Singapore warns more jobs will be lost due to ‘sheer uncertainty’

Amid the pandemic, Singapore’s trade-reliant, bellwether economy could shrink by up to 7 per cent – a level not seen since it gained independence – and economists forecast 200,000 people will be out of work in the city state by the end of the year, far more than the 40,000 who were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
Expatriates are expected to bear the brunt of the lay-offs – accounting for about 60 per cent, according to Maybank Kim Eng economist Lee Ju Ye – as Singapore’s government scrambles to save jobs for locals. So far, the government has made four fiscal injections totalling almost S$100 billion, including a Job Support Scheme subsidising 25 to 75 per cent of the first $4,600 in wages for 10 months – but this plan is only open to citizens and permanent residents of the city state.
Most foreigners in Singapore are migrant workers in low-paid jobs. Photo: Reuters

Sabrina said it made sense for companies looking to save money to repatriate workers with families first, since “it’s expensive to have a family here”, though she said this had created “much more of a frenzy and an anxiousness” among her peers who had previously been mostly concerned with the lockdown.

About 1.7 million foreigners live in Singapore, among its population of 5.7 million. Almost one million are migrant workers in low-paid jobs – who also account for more than 90 per cent of the city state’s nearly 39,000 Covid-19 infections – while 400,000 hold one of two classes of work visa that require a minimum monthly income of either S$2,400 or S$3,900.

Ella Sherman, who works as a property agent at Knight Frank specialising in expats in addition to her day job in human resources, said she hears of two or three foreign families planning to leave Singapore every day – mostly because of redundancies. Her clients have asked for help getting rent reductions or finding someone to take over their leases, she said. “There are also people wanting short leases of three or six months because they don’t know what their job situation is going to be. I am getting such enquiries about three times a week.”

A “surge in people moving home due to losing their jobs and not being able to stay” has also been noticed by Dan Mogg, a sales manager at relocation company Classic Moving, who said demand from individuals for its services was up by almost 20 per cent – though corporate moves seem to have been put on hold amid widespread hiring freezes and restrictions on international travel.

Singapore introduced a number of restrictions on travel amid the pandemic. Photo: EPA
Mogg has also been helping some of the “hundreds of people” he said became stuck outside Singapore after authorities introduced restrictions on travel amid the pandemic in March, such as a requirement for long-term pass holders to get pre-approval from the Manpower Ministry before entry. Classic Moving has been called on to move expatriates’ possessions into storage after they were forced to end the leases on their apartments, Mogg said, adding that even the owner of the company “is stuck in the UK and can’t get back in. So it’s all over the place”.
More evidence of the pandemic’s effects on expat employment in Singapore can be seen on Facebook, where posts abound offering household goods for sale because of contracts being cut short, alongside tales of woe and tips for people who had left the country before travel restrictions were in place and are now stuck waiting for approval to return.

The uncertainty has international schools “working tirelessly” with the families of current and prospective students whose plans have now changed, said Tom Evans, director of marketing and communications at Tanglin Trust School. He said that while he expects enrolment to remain at full capacity, “many students who originally planned to change schools have decided to stay while others who had planned to stay will be leaving Singapore”. Meanwhile, EtonHouse International Education Group said it has seen more withdrawals compared to previous years as expat families move home, although it said the drop was not significant.

The city state has long experienced expatriates flowing in and out – even now, some are leaving of their own accord to be closer to family and friends – but Sherman, the property agent, said she has noticed more of an exodus of late.

In the worst of times, it is easy to blame someone who is different from ourselves
Grace Fu, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth

“Normally, someone loses their job, they will find a new one or they might have a couple of months notice from their workplace to leave. But now, it just seems that rather than wait for the job market to pick up, expats are selling their furniture, finding replacement tenants and repatriating within a matter of weeks,” she said.

Sabrina said her husband had asked to stay in Singapore until December so that their children could finish the school year, but his company did not approve their request and they did not want to press the issue out of fear he would lose his job.

She, like Mogg the sales manager, expressed confidence in the city state’s handling of the pandemic and said she would happily stay if she could.

But the crisis has also exposed a deep divide between locals and expats in Singapore, amid reports and photos that have emerged of foreigners gathering, drinking and flouting social distancing rules.
Pedestrians wearing masks walk past shops in Singapore last month. Photo: EPA

Some Singaporeans have called for the offenders to be deported, citing media reports of 24 migrant workers who had their work permits revoked for breaching social distancing measures – a reaction Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said was “visceral” as “in the worst of times, it is easy to blame someone who is different from ourselves, [whether] it is due to race, religion or nationality”.

Those interviewed for this article said they understood and accepted the antivirus measures that Singapore had put in place, such as mandatory mask-wearing, and that the government needed to prioritise citizens over foreigners.

Yet there is still much insecurity among the expat community, according to Liv, whose husband’s travel industry job is looking increasingly precarious. If he is laid off, like many of those who worked for his previous employer have already been, then their family will have just 30 days to leave the country – the maximum amount of time they can stay on a tourist visa.

It is “completely normal and fair” that the jobs of Singaporeans should be protected, she said, but when it comes to her own family’s future “we’re really, really, really scared”.

Additional reporting by Kimberly Lim

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: expats feel pain in wake of virus