Repeating mistakes: The short-term profit focus and vulnerability of essential roles

by Foong Swee Fong

It seems that we have learnt nothing from the COVID pandemic.

I clearly remember a picture in the Straits Times of Malaysians leaving en masse at the Causeway, and our economy was left stranded as we had depended on foreigners to do the essential work.

Today, not only have we gone back to the old ways but are doubling down.

About two months ago, the government approved the employment of more foreign drivers as bus companies have difficulty recruiting drivers.

Today, we are told that “firms can hire housekeepers and porters on work permits from more locations.”

The usual reason is that firms have difficulty employing locals to do these jobs and that it is a temporary measure as firms are looking at long-term solutions, including upgrading and automation, but we have heard that over and over again, with no improvement.

The fact of the matter is that these firms do not wish to raise salaries to attract more workers but rather maximize their profits by bringing in cheap foreign workers.

However, the additional foreign workers come with a cost to society – congestion, social conflicts, higher cost of living, and suppression of wages. But it does not concern the offending businesses.

Although the PAP government has the luxury of continuity, it is not taking the long-term view but instead is letting short-term profitability take precedence over long term sustainability.

COVID would not be the last pandemic. When the next pandemic strikes, we will be left scrambling again to cover essential jobs.

Essential jobs are respectable jobs, but unfortunately, they don’t pay enough these days for a Singaporean to cover the cost of living and lead a dignified life.

The government will have us believe that these are market forces and that Singaporeans unfortunate enough to be doing such jobs have only their fate to blame.

But if it really is market forces, essential workers would be very well paid as we are always told that not many Singaporeans want to do such jobs. Economics 101 tells us that when demand is high and supply is low, the asking price has to rise to reach equilibrium.

But alas, the government as referee between employers and employees, has “kelonged” and opened a big back door so that all and sundry foreign workers can come to depress the asking price.

So much for free market forces!

This was first published on Foong Swee Fong’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.

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