Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Eateries hit hard by foreign labour crunch

Last week, Soon Heng Restaurant, one of the oldest fish head curry restaurants here, shut for good because it could not hire enough workers.

Earlier this year, Sakae Sushi made the news when CEO Douglas Foo said the Japanese food chain had problems hiring dishwashers, despite the promise of a $3,000 salary.

A quick check in the heartland revealed that it isn't just the big players that are suffering. If anything, it is the owners of small businesses who seem to be the hardest hit.

In every district, there are signs seeking hawker assistants, but most can hire only Singaporeans or permanent residents (PRs).

This is a result of new measures introduced earlier this year in a bid to increase Singapore's productivity.

As of July 1, foreign employees cannot make up more than 45 per cent of staff in a service industry company. This is on top of the foreign worker levy, which can go up to $500 a month per worker, depending on the number of foreigners hired in a company.

Last week, both Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and labour chief Lim Swee Say reiterated that the Government will not turn back on initiatives to limit the influx of foreign workers.

In the past, the Government had relaxed curbs on foreign labour during a recession.

Mr Lim said on Thursday that Singaporeans have to be prepared that the number of jobs created might be cut to between 65,000 and 75,000. In the past, up to 120,000 new jobs were created every year. He emphasised that we should look towards increasing productivity and retraining workers.

This way, if workers are made redundant in one industry, they can always find work somewhere else.

Business owners say that staying within the 45 per cent limit is difficult because many Singaporeans are unwilling to work the long hours required at eateries and hawker stalls.

Chef and restaurant owner Eugene Heng said that he took nearly a month just to hire two full-time workers for his new sushi bar.

"Not many people want to work in F&B because of the pay and hard work," he said, adding that the industry also has a high turnover rate due to the stress and fast-paced work.

The problem is especially bad in the hawker stalls, where one proprietor told The New Paper that his sign looking for workers has turned yellow after being put up for more than two years.

Most of these owners said it will be difficult to continue without extra workers and they could go the way of Soon Heng.

Not such a bad thing?

Associate Professor Liu Haoming, who specialises in labour economics at the National University of Singapore, said the spate of closures might not be a bad thing since it would increase productivity in the long run.

"(After the closures of low-productivity firms), an increase in wages can attract local workers to these sectors, which will increase the income level of the locals and finally increase the total demand (of blue-collared jobs by locals)," he said.

But some business owners have been getting ahead of the problem by first changing their way of operating.

Jumbo Seafood's chief executive Ang Kiam Meng said the labour crunch resulting from the shift in government policies has hit the group hard.

The company started implementing operational changes about six months ago to decrease their labour dependence. They have a Flexi Work scheme, where staff can choose when and how long they can work each time.

While half of the chain's 800-strong staff are foreign, the company has invested in technology like wireless hand-held devices so waiting staff can take orders on the go.

"In the past, we were used to easy solutions like hiring more foreign workers. But now with all these new rules, it's time for business owners to step up," he said. "More importantly, we had to change our mindset."

Fast-food chain McDonald's managing director Phyllis Cheung said it faces many of the same manpower constraints affecting F&B and services sectors.

While most of its 8,500 workers are Singaporeans and PRs, Ms Cheung did not provide a breakdown of its workforce.

"We continue to set ourselves apart by investing in our people and providing them with opportunities for career advancement, competitive wages and an engaging work environment, as well as continuing to enhance our productivity and service excellence."

But what about those who might not be able to afford such incentives?

Cafe owner Teo Hui Kiat, who set up shop just over a year ago, turned to the coffee academies and vocational training schools to make up for manpower shortage.

"Our selling point was that we allow our staff to put into practice what they have learnt," said Mr Teo, who now has three part-time employees.

He added: "It also helps that there is an increased interest in coffee culture because of the growing independent cafe scene."

All over Singapore, hawker stalls are suffering the same plight - a shortage of manpower.


Things looked bleak at Sin Huat Lee Restaurant at Block 371, Bukit Batok Street 31. Four of the nine stalls had signs looking for stall assistants.

Mr Xie, a 40-something who owns a stall selling fish soup, said he has no choice but to be a one-man show.

Pointing to a sign on a wall, he lamented: "This sign has been here for two to three years. It's been so long, the paper has turned yellow."


Mr Anton Tan, who runs Uggli Muffins at the Food Centre at Block 127, Toa Payoh Lorong 1, has advertised for helpers not just at his stall but also in the newspapers.

He said: "It's really frustrating. Some people said they'll come for an interview and don't turn up. Others hang up when I tell them the working hours are from 6am to 4pm."


In Yishun, several hawker stalls are looking for workers.

The boss of Joo Hoong Seafood at Blissful Food City Coffee Shop, Mr Sia Fook Seng, 52, needs a female worker for his stall. He said that many Singaporeans are not keen on hawker jobs.

"They'll have to work long hours. Many of them want days off. They have a lot of terms and conditions. It's hard to find a willing person," said Mr Sia.


Madam Ang, 50, is struggling to keep her Jian Bo Shui Kueh stall in Tiong Bahru Market afloat. Left with only one helper, she put up a poster at her stall to look for more workers. She received some calls but no takers.

Said Madam Ang: "Singaporeans want to sleep until 8, but by 8 we've started work. I beg you to let us hire foreigners."


At least three eateries were looking to hire more workers.

Since opening in May, Sandwich Saigon, a Vietnamese cafe, has been trying to hire workers. Its owner, Mr Andrew Chu, 45, said: "Which local would want to work long hours for low salary?"

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