The Number of Singaporean Food Delivery Riders Reveals Deeper Manpower Policy Problems

The recent extensive coverage in the mainstream media of the manpower shortage in the F&B sector brought to the forefront the issue of job security for Singaporean non-PMETs. Judging from their tone, the reports seem to support more foreign workers in the F&B sector. However, it is puzzling why the 20,000 food delivery riders are not attracted to the 2,000 to 3,000 reported job vacancies in the F&B sector.

Why would local workers prefer to rush from one place to another, sometimes dangerously, as a food delivery rider (FDR) rather than work as waiters in restaurants? Many full-time FDRs told me it was because of the pay. While it may be difficult to earn a $3,000 take-home pay per month as a waiter, this is achievable for full-time FDRs. The more aggressive FDRs can earn even more with longer working hours and seasonal promotional incentives. They also get paid promptly and do not need to wait for payment by the month.

What has caused the pay difference? It is the presence of foreign workers in the F&B sector but not in the FDR sector, as foreign workers have depressed wages in the F&B sector. The same applies to other sectors of our economy. While this may be good for the profitability of employers and economic growth in the short term, in the long term this leaves Singaporean workers behind. An economic model which does not ensure an equitable distribution of income to the workers is bound to fail in the long term.

Foreign workers can tolerate long hours under poor working conditions, because they want to maximize their earnings before returning to their home countries. On the other hand, based in their own country, Singaporeans wish for better work-life balance. But they are now forced to work on the same terms as foreigners because foreign workers have become a significant presence in Singapore after decades of liberal foreign manpower policies.

With low pay and poor job prospects, it is not surprising that locals would shun the F&B sector in preference for the FDR sector, which is “protected” from foreign workers and where locals enjoy higher wages at least for the moment. Increasingly, Singaporeans are relegated to the low end of the employment chain in some sectors. Many Singaporeans commented that while the private hire and taxi drivers in the US and Europe are usually immigrants, in Singapore, these drivers are mostly locals!

This phenomenon of Singaporeans exiting sectors with intense competition from foreign workers and seeking refuge in “protected” sectors is a major concern, because that means many of our key economic sectors are seeing the Singaporean Core shrink. While it is especially worrisome for Singapore’s PMET sectors like engineering, IT, professional services and finance, it is also necessary that we retain a Singaporean Core in the non-PMET sectors for our economy and society to function properly. We need to maintain a Singaporean Core in all sectors and levels of our economy.

More recognition and rewards should be given to tradesmen. The Leader of Opposition, Pritam Singh, raised this “tradesmen” issue many times in Parliament but the government just didn’t get it. I have also argued in Parliament that if we can pay an experienced construction worker better, like $4,000 to $5,000 per month, we should not hesitate to encourage the healthy FDRs to switch to construction. Hong Kong has limits on the number of foreign construction workers and construction workers there are paid quite well.

If the job market’s mechanism cannot achieve that, the wages and job prospects of tradesmen like skilled construction workers, plumbers, electricians and waiters can be improved with government assistance. The government is preoccupied with parachuting Singaporeans in at the managerial level, but this will not work well if the Singaporeans lack experience in the lower-level work of that sector. Even jobs at the managerial level are under threat from foreign workers.

The government must not let thousands of Singaporeans languish in platform jobs till they lose interest and motivation to be trained in skilled jobs. While plans to provide protection to platform workers with union representation and CPF contribution are good, they do not sufficiently contribute to developing our human resources.

Hence, the current manpower shortage in the F&B sector is no justification of the foreign worker policy, but instead a reflection of the failure of Singapore’s manpower policy in striking the right balance between local and foreign workers.

Singaporeans deserve better!

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