The truth about the availability of Employment Passes and work permits for people wanting to find a job and work in Singapore.
- The number of approved Employment Pass (EP) work permits in Singapore is falling, the number of S Passes approved is rising.
- A 70 per cent hike in salary requirements for top level EP holders, amid other requirements
- The income requirement for Personalised Employment Pass (PEP) holders quadrupled on 1 December 2012
You’ve aced the interview and are ready to move halfway around the world to start work. Bad news if you’re a young, inexperienced expat not commanding the big bucks: a clampdown on Employment Passes by the Singapore Government means you’re more likely to be rejected for a work visa.
In the last three years, the requirements for work visas have been tightened – from how much money candidates have to earn, to what university they studied at and how many family members they can bring with them. At the same time, the number of EPs handed out by the Ministry of Manpower actually decreased by 700 from December 2011 to June this year, bucking a trend which had been on the rise for years. Permanent residencies granted in 2011 are almost a third of what they were in 2008.
Immigration and relocation consultant Pearce Cheng, from AIMS Immigration Specialists, relocates a lot of Western expats to Singapore. It’s getting more difficult for his clients to get work visas approved – and he says the Singaporean Government is trying to control the inflow of foreign workers into Singapore.
“The government is trying to reflect upon the last general election where the people spoke up as to why they’re unhappy.” Cheng is referring to last year’s general election result which, while still being a large majority win by the People’s Action Party with 81 of 87 seats, saw their party vote slip from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent in 2011. Some say one area of concern for voters pre-election was the amount of jobs going to foreigners.
Speaking at a rally in Woodlands in April last year, Singapore Democratic Party candidate Michelle Lee expressed concern at the large number of foreign workers and the rate at which they were entering Singapore, reported Channel News Asia. “We must ask why so many and why so quickly? Singapore is becoming a place where Singaporeans are strangers in our own land,” the news network reported.
Days after the election, Reuters reported that “there was strident criticism at this election over the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the high cost of living and complaints about foreign workers stealing jobs.”
Cheng says of the current climate, “I guess they’re trying to take action on it because they’re trying to put a clamp on foreign workers coming here.”
Satish Bakhda, head of operations at company registration specialists Rikvin, agreed there had been a clampdown on the number of EPs given out and also agreed there was a political motivation to the restrictions. “This whole thing started with the last general election when the government lost some support and realised that the locals were not too happy about the amount of foreigners coming in.”
But Cheng saw a tightening in the requirements even before the general election. “Definitely this year MOM has made its requirements tougher: minimum salary required, quota requirements, post requirements.” Currently, he says, most of his clients face difficulty getting a pass approved, and many have to appeal a rejection, saying why they have specialised skills that are needed here.
What this means is more EP and S Pass applications were rejected in the first seven months of this year than the in the entire year of 2011, a fact reported by Channel News Asia in September this year. Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said 30 per cent of the applications, which also included those up for renewal, were rejected compared to 2011’s total figure of 26 per cent, said the news network.
As the number of EPs has dipped, the number of S Passes has risen from nearly 114,000 last year to about 128,000, as at June this year, according to Today newspaper.
Lee Quane, regional director Asia for human resources firm ECA International, said there was a reduction in the number of people either applying for or being granted work visas in Singapore, but recent restrictions didn’t target professional services and middle-and-senior-level positions. “They relate to lower-level or junior-level staff. It might be a prudent response to the current economic downfall. If you go back to 2007-2008 there was a big increase in immigration in Singapore. People saw it was very easy to get work permits.
“We saw companies in Singapore having to retrench foreign and local workers. When you’ve got concerns about your local population and whether there are jobs for them, then most governments around the world would be more stringent when they’re examining people’s applications for work permits.”
Those more likely to move to Singapore in search of a job – the younger, less-experienced professionals – are those more likely to have their EP applications rejected, says Bakhda. “Currently, what’s happening is the EP requirements have been tightening up. It is true that it is harder to get an EP these days but it is only for a certain category. Those with less experience are more likely to be rejected. If you’re 22 and a masters graduate then you probably don’t qualify.”
But, those with the same qualifications and more experience (say, those over 25 years of age) have a better chance. It all depends on the type of skills the candidate has – those competing with Singaporeans for jobs available locally probably won’t be approved, says Bahdka. “If you’re a microbiologist and you’re 22 to 24 years old, you probably would be accepted because there are no microbiologists in Singapore. But if you are a GM of a restaurant – no can do.”
The salary level is another factor that influences whether candidates are approved or not. “The Singapore Government is saying if you hire a manager or engineer and you pay $3,000-$4,000, it means one or two things to the MOM: Are you bringing in cheap labour to compete with Singapore or are you underpaying your staff?” Professionals, specialists, and subject matter experts, with several years of experience and a good salary, have a really good chance of being approved, adds Bahdka.
One head of talent acquisition at a large media company, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has seen a delay in some EPs being approved. “We really haven’t seen much change other than a delay in approval time. We were seeing EPs approved earlier this year within a week. But we [recently had to] investigate a scenario for a junior candidate where the process was going to take two months.” However, one candidate, a British national who was offered a relatively low salary, between $3,000 and $3,500, was “flat out rejected” for an EP with no explanation.
He was aware of a review by the Ministry of Manpower which may result in some EPs being downgraded to S Passes. “This might result in some people being sent home. It will definitely result in some families being sent home. It’s obviously a concern from our perspective.”
In July this year, the Singapore Government announced changes to the EP and S-Pass requirements. Accompanying this was an issues paper, Our Population Our Future, released by the National Population and Talent Division of the Prime Minister’s Office. It lays out the background and arguments supporting the changes to working visa requirements. At its core is Singapore’s low birth rate and ageing population. At the current birth rates and with no immigration, the country’s Singaporean population will start to decline by 2025, and the number of elderly citizens will have tripled by the year 2030. One way to make up for this is to import a foreign workforce. This can pose a problem, though, according to the report:
“Others are worried that Singaporeans may be disadvantaged because foreigners may compete for jobs, suppress wages, and affect the standards of living for some segments of our population. Recognising these concerns, the government has tightened our immigration framework and put in place more stringent foreign workforce controls to reduce the inflow of foreigners into Singapore.”
Twelve per cent of Singapore’s non-resident population are higher-skilled holders of EPs such as professionals, managers, executives and specialists. This group helps the Singapore-base by providing skills and expertise that aren’t yet in abundance in the local workforce. It also helps local companies expand into regional and international markets.
But, “there are concerns that the presence of skilled foreign workers has added to job competition in some sectors and Singaporeans are not able to get the best jobs as a result.” Tighter restrictions on skilled foreigners could ease job competition, but overly restrictive foreign manpower policies could make it difficult for businesses to operate here.
The qualifying salaries for EP holders were raised in July 2011 to keep up with the rising salaries of the Singaporean workforce, and eligibility requirements have tightened for EP holders entering lower and mid-level professional, managerial and executive jobs since January 2012. Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told the National Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Convention earlier this year that, because there was a lot of transference of lower-level EPs into S Passes, “we are now exploring measures to perhaps tighten that segment.”
So what’s happening on the other side of the world? Geneva in Switzerland is a private banking hot spot comparable to Singapore. There, it’s hard for non-European professionals to get a working visa, said Marie Malzieu, spokeswoman for Approach People Recruitment, which has offices all over Europe, including Geneva. “The government has quotas and they tend to decrease every year. It is easier for European workers to get a visa in Singapore or Hong Kong for instance, especially if they are going there with the company they are working for in Europe.”
Tania Morizzo, Vice-Consul at the Embassy of Switzerland here in Singapore, said in general, Switzerland is giving out slightly more working visas but she couldn’t tell whether this was specifically for skilled professionals or other professionals, nor whether these were for Geneva or not. She said the number of Swiss citizens working and living in Singapore had increased, but the Embassy did not know if it was taking longer for EP approvals.
In Hong Kong, the most comparable expat labour market to Singapore, things are heading in the opposite direction to the Lion City: there, the number of work visas granted to skilled professionals rose from 6,545 in the first quarter this year, to 7,327 in the second.
As ECA’s regional director, Lee Quane is well versed in the work visa trends in Hong Kong. He said this is more a supply and demand factor than a case of the government relaxing its work permit requirements. “There hasn’t been any change in legislation and they haven’t made the requirements more lax, but there are more people have moved to Hong Kong in the last 12 months compared to the previous one to two years. There’s an increase in applications rather than a change in government policy.”
Singapore and Hong Kong, said Quane, offer better opportunities than the United Kingdom and the United States, which are faced with relatively difficult labour markets. “Before, five to 10 years ago, most people would come out to the region if they were being moved by their employer. Now, people move to the region and look for jobs.”
Singaporeans are also increasingly looking past their home country for jobs. An NUS study said that in 2010, about 180,000 Singaporeans lived abroad, about nine per cent of the 2010 working population. Even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is concerned – he told the United Press International in 2008 that brain drain was a “pretty serious” problem.
The question remains, is it good policy for Singapore to limit the availability of foreign skilled visas when more and more Singaporeans are working overseas? If growing a local worker base to sustain an ageing population is a priority, should the government look at ways to make Singapore’s workplace more attractive for Singaporeans instead of focusing on reducing the amount of foreign talent?