The recent article by Vladimir Guevarra (The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2001) has brought out the pressing need to upgrade archaic local employment laws in order to cope with the demands of the New Economy and Singapore’s aspirations to position itself as an Infocomm hub for the region. The absence of adequate laws to address a seemingly standard problem demands that the Employment Act, last revised in 1996, needs a careful re-examination and possibly an overhaul.
First, the provisions of the Act, which do not encompass managers and executives, as well as those earning in the excess of $1,600 a month, needs to be addressed. As Singapore seeks to attract foreign talent, it needs to ensure that its existing legal infrastructure provides - at the minimum - safeguards that allow these categories of workers to seek redress in the unfortunate situation where a dispute arises. True, as skilled workers, they should be better versed with legal avenues available to them. Further, unemployment insurance might go some way in mitigating unfortunate cases where the fault lies clearly in the employer.
Although the effort put in by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was admirable and went beyond their call of duty, the fundamental problem lay in the inadequacies inherent in the Employment Act. As the drivers in the New Economy, service positions such as managers and executives are no longer uncommon. In addition, surely $1,600 a month is no longer a sum solely the domain of educated professionals? Inflation, as well as a general improvement in standards of living, has led to such a monthly wage being relatively pedestrian, especially if one has been in the labour force for a year or so. Both the caveat that excludes professionals from MOM assistance as well as the unrealistic wage ceiling should certainly be reconsidered.
Second, the want of special provisos that specifically cover foreign talent in the event of complications should be looked at carefully. True, one does not wish to open the floodgates to indiscriminate calls for assistance, but for certain circumstances where the employer is clearly at fault, such as the ones mentioned in the article, some form of explicit or implicit insurance should exist. This would set at ease the hearts and minds of foreigners who have necessarily made sacrifices in order to seek out employment far away from home, where the environment is uncertain and peculiar.
The importance of such measures cannot be underemphasized. As has been reiterated time and again, Singapore’s primary source of competitive advantage in the knowledge-based economy is its skilled human capital - both local as well as foreign. Attracting and retaining talent would involve not just ensuring that the physical infrastructure such as housing and is excellent, but also that the legal and regulatory environment are appealing and friendly. After all, one hardly needs reminders that New Economy workers, other than being intelligent and resourceful, are also extremely mobile.
Guevarra, V., "Where's Our Pay?", The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2001