Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Keeping Foreign Workers in Perspective

At the start of this millenium, if one were to mention Foreign Talent (FTs), they were often referring to caucasian men in power suits, sipping cocktails, living in swanky apartments and driving open top Lambos. 

Today, the word FT is starting to encompass not just these folks residing at Sixth Avenue but also white collar workers who are flooding in from North East Asia. In particular, the recent years have seen such an explosion of growth in Chinese migrant workers coming down that the FTs that we talk about today in Singapore are invariably just this group of people.

For any of you not old enough to remember, Chinese migrant workers were originally our forefathers. Clad with a sweaty shirt on their back, with hardly any possessions, they travelled on rickety bum boats from the Southern provinces of China to this far and distant land known as Nanyang. 

Some of our forefathers came here to escape poverty in rural China, some came to escape the war, some came to seek a new life. Nevertheless, the Singaporeans that we have come to know ourselves as today, is a product of these risk taking Chinamen. 

Today, a new generation of Chinamen are coming down to Nanyang again. This time, Nanyang is abit different. This place goes by the name of Singapore and we are no longer a British colony. These Chinese migrating down south no longer have to carry heavy sacks of rice nor are they escaping from poverty.

In fact, most of them are affluent and many of them arrive with skills to contribute. Like their fellow countrymen who descended upon this island many years ago, they too possess the fight to survive. Their mentality is that they have to work hard in order to create a better life. The competitiveness that is imbued in these individuals have not changed one bit from our forefathers.

The only problem these new Chinese migrant workers face today is that they have arrived to a place filled with Chinese who no longer have any roots back in mainland. Sure, Chinese Singaporeans share the same skin colour but the similarities stop there. Singaporeans talk different, behave different and most of all possess a work ethic that pales in comparison to these hardworking and enterprising mainland Chinese. 

The central gripe that Singaporeans have over these mainland Chinese today is the fact that they are stealing our jobs. It is a phenomenon that is happening everywhere. Chinese are stealing the world's jobs, from making underwears to selling Lor Mee at the food centre. 

They are eager to learn, cheap to employ and extremely committed to working long hours. 

And they are frightening the hell out of Singaporeans.

A recent thread in a political forum shows this disgruntled Singaporean complaining that he can't believe he was been served by two Chinese hawkers who did not even know what Lor Mee was. The best part about this was, the stall had Lor Mee on its menu. The boss had to come out, explain to these Chinese hawkers and teach them from scratch how to make one of Singaporean's favourite dish. 

Certainly, this Singaporean has every right to vent his anger. Who would not? It's like going to China and working at their food store and not know what Dan Dan Mian is. The Chinese will be up in arms about this fact as well. 

As a result, Singaporeans are continuing their cry to remove these FTs from "important" front line positions. How are these folks going to serve when they don't even know how to speak english and make our favourite dishes? 

It's a valid complaint but Singaporeans fail to realize that hawker centres are run by business minded people after all. 

You may want a Singaporean uncle/auntie giving you a big smile and pouring their 30 year old traditional Lor Mee broth into your bowl and making your day. But the fact is, lesser and lesser Singaporeans are willing to take up such a trade and even those who are in this line are not showing the right apititude for it. 

Singaporeans must know that at the end of the day, no one owes them a living and certainly if someone is more enthusiastic and hardworking about the job, it is only natural that the job goes to them. This is not about China workers anymore, any worker of any nationality will steal our jobs.

Yet, it is important to note that there is a way around it and it consists of employers knowing what the Singaporean market wants as well. 

Employers need to know what makes their business tick, how to keep cost down is one thing. But I believe retaining customers is the most important thing in doing a business. Certainly, you don't want to open a business and just attract unique customers. Singapore is a small place after all. 

So businesses, especially F & B ones, must understand that Singaporeans prefer to see a Singaporean fellow serving them than a PRC worker. Sure, the Singaporean will cost a bit more but its worth it, because Singaporeans come to hawker centres to eat true blue Singaporean food. And if there is a Singaporean serving, at least 50% of their satisfaction is retained. 

Singaporeans will naturally be turned off by a PRC worker there, so no matter how cheap it is to hire them, eventually the business will go bust because nobody will even want to entertain the prospects of patronizing a stall run by a PRC, especially those who don't even know what Lor Mee is. 

This is definitely a case of penny wise pound foolish.

Singaporean and businesses must work hand in hand to overcome the Red Tide from the north. I am certainly not arguing for a No PRC worker policy. But just that businesses must know where to strategically line them .

As evidence from many other bad experiences Singaporeans had with the F&B industry, it is obvious that PRC workers are just not suited to be in the frontline serving people.

And businesses will just have to get that into their scheme of things if they want to survive doing trade in the service industry in Singapore.

No comments: