Anxiety grows among foreign spouses due to Singapore’s rule change for dependant’s pass holders

Singapore announced that dependant’s passes holders must obtain a work pass if they want to seek employment. — TODAY file pic
Singapore announced that dependant’s passes holders must obtain a work pass if they want to seek employment. — TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, Mar 14 — When the new rules for dependant’s pass (DP) holders kick in from May 1, Ms Patel, who has a letter allowing her to work in Singapore until May, will probably lose her job.

“I have to renew my DP in May, but my company won’t be able to continue hiring me because they don’t have the quota (for me),” said the 35-year-old Indian national, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she is still in discussions with her employer.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had announced earlier this month that DP holders, who are family members of foreigners working here, will need to obtain formal work passes from May 1 if they want to work in Singapore.

Those who are now working under a letter of consent (LOC) can continue working until its expiry, which is typically between one and two years, depending on the length of the DP as well as the validity of their spouse’s work pass.

In announcing the rule change, the MOM had said that it is intended to harmonise the employment rules for DP holders with the overall work pass framework, and that it will facilitate employers and staff to transit to the new arrangement.

But DP holders told TODAY that the situation is not as simple as a pass conversion.

The quota Ms Patel referred to is the dependency ratio ceiling — the maximum ratio of foreign workers to the total workforce that a company can employ, depending on the sector it is in.

Companies that already hit the quota will not be able to apply for new permits or work passes unless they hire more locals.

At her current monthly income of S$1,500, she would not qualify for the S-Pass, which has a different quota, unless her employer is willing to bump her pay up to hit the S-Pass minimum criteria of S$2,500.

Her employer is in the food supply chain business.

Three other DP holders, all of whom are women, said they were also disappointed by the new rule. They said their families might have to move out of Singapore eventually because the rules would force them to become housewives to their working husbands, even though they are capable of working.

A women’s tennis coach, whose LOC expires in two years’ time, said: “I have a Master’s degree and I have been working even before I was married. My husband has a job (in Singapore) as a digital analyst. I have accepted that I could be paid less, just so we can be together as a family.

“But if I’m forbidden to work entirely, some part of me feels that this is not fair.”

The rule changes will also impact small business owners such as Matthew Fast, who founded English language school United Language Centre.

Roughly 40 per cent of his teachers and centre staff are DP holders, who will lose their jobs over the next few years when their LOCs expire, he said.

“They do not work the required hours to qualify for S-Pass, even if we had the quota, which we don’t due to the nature of our business Most of our LOC teachers are working on part-time contracts and therefore will be difficult to replace with locals expecting to work full time, which puts us in no man’s land,” said Mr Fast.

He told TODAY that he understands why the Singapore Government aims to promote the hiring of locals, and said that his company will not be too affected in the long term as he will be able to replace his lost staff with Singaporeans or Singapore permanent residents.

“I love the fact that the Singapore Government puts its people and citizens first,” he said.

“However, I think for our company and its employees, it is a sad time for many teachers and staff at the language centre, at international schools and the rest of this industry, as a lot of people will be out of work,” he said.

TODAY understands that international schools hire significant numbers of DP holders as substitute teachers.

New rules sting working women disproportionately, say experts

On Tuesday, Victor Mills, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, penned a sombre post about the May 1 change, which he described as an “unintended reversal” in gender equality.

Said Mills in his business chambers’ newsletter: “The new rules impact women disproportionately because they are the majority of working expat partners and spouses. Some work in foreign national business chambers, others in private education teaching foreign languages. Others are entrepreneurs. Much of the work they do does not take a job away from a Singaporean.”

This also means a lot of unhappy foreign expatriate families, and relocating them here will be harder if they know their partner or spouse will not be able to work, he said.

“The image of Singapore as welcoming talent takes another hit which we can’t afford. Our society will be the poorer for it and yet, will there be a significant increase in jobs for Singaporeans? Probably not,” wrote Mills.

Manpower experts who spoke to TODAY agreed with his assessment.

Lee Quane, regional director of Asia for international expatriate management firm ECA International, said that based on his data, female spouses make up a “disproportionate amount” of the 11,000 DP holders working in Singapore.

“It may deter senior level leaders with spouses who wish to continue their career while in Singapore from relocating, thereby potentially lowering the calibre of employees willing to relocate to Singapore,” said Quane.

Singapore is also home to a large number of foreign entrepreneurs who use their ability to work, courtesy of their DP status, to start up new businesses, thus contributing to its vibrant startup sector, he added.

Kumar Bhaya, vice president (client solutions Asia Pacific) of talent acquisition consultancy Cielo, said the rule change did not come as a surprise since MOM has raised the requirements for both S-Pass and Employment Pass holders in order to strengthen the Singaporean core.

Businesses will need to adopt hiring strategies to look at a wider pool of candidates, and may need to review its “value proposition” to attract the right talent, he said. The business impact, however, may not be widespread since LOC holders make up around 1 per cent of all pass holders, he noted.

Nevertheless, MOM’s policy change opens up opportunities to consider internal mobility and promotion opportunities to train Singaporean talent to take on new roles previously delivered by DP holders, he said.

But Ms Patel is sceptical that her employer can easily find a Singaporean replacement for her job in food services for her current S$1,500 monthly wage.

As an essential service worker who toiled through the circuit breaker period over the past year so that food supplies are not disrupted, Ms Patel said she was disappointed that her hard slog through Covid-19 would come to nothing because of the rule change.

When her LOC expires, chances are that both the position and her employment will disappear, she said. “No company will pay more to hire a local for this,” said Ms Patel wistfully. — TODAY

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