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
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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