Singapore First: Quietly shutting the door on Indian techies and other foreign workers

Too crowded.
Too crowded.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Nearly 10,000 miles away from the anti-immigrant climate in Trump’s America, an island nation has been clamping down on Indian tech workers as part of its efforts to make sure companies give locals a fair shake, and to address concerns about overpopulation.

Singapore, which has about 5.6 million people and a workforce nearly 40% made up of nonresidents, has been ramping up measures to ensure that firms have a “Singapore core.” Officials have noted that foreign workers tend to be more common in certain industries, including food-and-beverage and technology. While Singapore hasn’t made any statements singling out Indian workers or firms, India’s IT trade industry body says it’s seen a definite change in the visa regime.

“They realized that the total number of people they have… far exceed the optimal level [the country can accommodate],” Gagan Sabharwal, director of global trade development at Nasscom, told Quartz. ”That’s when they started shutting the tap down by making it more expensive, making it more cumbersome for companies.” Nasscom, the National Association of Software and Services Companies, has noted a reduction in visas over several years, but says things have become particularly tough since last year. 

At first, Sabharwal says, Singapore started raising salaries required for foreign workers every six months or so by more than 10%. However, soon, he said, local workers started complaining that they weren’t getting paid as handsomely as their foreign counterparts. Last month, Singapore raised the minimum salary that a firm has to pay a local worker in order to be able to count them as a full-time local employee while calculating how many foreign workers it is allowed to hire.

Singaporean authorities are also reportedly asking for information in relation to work-permit applications for Indian tech workers that firms feel is contrary to a 2005 economic cooperation agreement between the two countries.

Quartz reached out to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) with questions and will update if they respond.

Work-permit processes have tightened a lot since Singapore adopted the Fair Consideration Framework, a slew of rules in place since October 2015 to make sure employers really are considering Singaporeans for vacancies. It requires, among other things, that an employer with over 25 employees advertise a vacancy for two weeks before applying for an employment pass for an international worker to fill that role.

“All Indian companies have received communication on fair consideration, which basically means hiring local people,” Nasscom president R. Chandrashekhar told Times Of India

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower also requires that companies provide it with information on the number of applications submitted by Singaporeans, whether Singaporeans were interviewed for the vacancy, and the firm’s current share of Singaporeans in professional, managerial, and executive positions. In 2016, there were more than 300 applications pending for foreign employment passes after 100 firms came under extra scrutiny for not giving Singaporeans a fair chance.

Before these recent efforts, Indian tech companies were awarded between 5,000 and 10,000 work permits each year.  ”Since about last summer, the approval rates have actually fallen drastically. Most companies are only getting a trickle through,” says Sabharwal of Nasscom. The total population of Indian techies in Singapore has shriveled to under 10,000, NDTV reported. Applications—which typically took two to four weeks to process—have been held up for months.

Of course, it’s not just Singapore that’s shutting the door on Indian techies, Sabharwal says. The UK, Canada, and the US—the three countries that account for the majority of India’s software export revenue—all have made it harder for Indians to migrate to each of those locations.

Each of these places poses a unique problem beyond the legal woes: For instance, a resurgence of white supremacist organisations nationwide and xenophobic political rhetoric have fueled hate crimes in the US. While such acts of violence are unheard of in Singapore, an unwelcoming sentiment toward Indians has been pervading the Asian country too.

The city-state—where nearly 10% of the citizens are of Indian heritage and Tamil is an official language—has seen discrimination against prospective home renters of Indian-origin. Inter-racial couples are subject to constant scrutiny and Singaporean students of Indian descent have complained of being victims of racism. Meanwhile, a new political party, SingFirst, says the city-state needs to focus on “growing our own timber,” when it comes to the workforce, and be less reliant on foreign labor.

Singapore’s home minister, himself of Indian origin, has warned that the city-state must be on guard against populism that could sharpen ethnic divisions. The new effort to promote local hiring is also at odds with how Singapore has billed itself over the last half century, as an attractive destination for the globe-trotting highly skilled worker.

Local hiring is also easier said than done, according to Sabharwal, who says it is difficult to find residents to fill positions. He added that companies need to make more of an effort on providing skills training—or be prepared to move operations out.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the population of Singapore is 5.4 million. The population, as of 2016, is 5.6 million.