In December 2021, Singapore’s labor market totaled 3.64 million workers; this includes about 1.24 million foreigners, of whom about 84 percent are basic skilled or semi-skilled workers. The overall unemployment rate was 2.3 percent as of January. Local labor laws allow for relatively free hiring and firing practices. Either party can terminate employment by giving the other party the required notice. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) must approve employment of foreigners. In 2020, females had an employment rate of 73.2 percent compared to males of 87.9 percent. Females accounted for 46.3 percent of the resident labor force as of June 2020. The Council for Board Diversity reported that as of December 2021, women’s representation on boards of the largest 100 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange increased over the previous year to 18.9 percent. Representation of women also increased on statutory boards to 29.7 percent but declined slightly on registered NGOs and charities to 28.4 percent. Singapore’s adjusted gender pay gap was 6 percent as of the most recent data in 2018 but occupational segregation continued.
Since 2011, the government has introduced policy measures to support productivity increases coupled with reduced dependence on foreign labor. In Budget 2019, MOM announced a decrease in the foreign worker quota ceiling from 40 percent to 38 percent on January 1, 2020 and to 35 percent on January 1. The quota reduction does not apply to those on Employment Passes (EPs) which are high skilled workers making above $39,750 per year. In Budget 2020, the foreign worker quota was cut further for mid-skilled (“S Pass”) workers in construction, marine shipyards, and the process sectors from 20 to 18 percent by January 1, 2021. The quota will be further reduced to 15 percent on January 1, 2023. Singapore’s labor force increased marginally with the partial reopening of borders after easing of COVID-19 restrictions but is expected to face significant demographic headwinds from an aging population and low birth rates, alongside restrictions on foreign workers. Singapore’s local workforce growth is slowing, heading for stagnation over the next 10 years.
To address concerns over an aging and shrinking workforce, MOM has expanded its training and grant programs. The government included a number of individual and company subsidies for existing and new programs in the latest budget, as well as an unprecedented number of supplementary budgets during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. An example of an existing program is SkillsFuture, a government initiative managed by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), a statutory board under the Ministry of Education, designed to provide all Singaporeans with enhanced opportunities and skills-capacity building. SSG also administers the Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications, a national credential system that trains, develops, assesses, and certifies skills and competencies for the workforce.
All foreigners must have a valid work pass before they can start work in Singapore, with EPs (for professionals, managers, and executives), S Pass (for mid-level skilled staff), and Work Permits (for semi-skilled workers), among the most widely issued. Workers need to have a job with minimum fixed monthly salary and acceptable qualifications to be eligible for the EP and S Pass. MOM has increased minimum salaries multiple times, restricting the ability of some companies to hire foreign workers, including spouses of employment pass holders. From September 2023, it will be raised to $3,500 for new EP applicants ($3,850 for those in the financial services sector) and $2,100 for new S Pass applicants ($2,450 for those in the financial services sector). The government further regulates the inflow of foreign workers through the Foreign Worker Levy (FWL) and the Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC). The DRC is the maximum permitted ratio of foreign workers to the total workforce that a company can hire and serves as a quota on the hiring of foreign workers. The DRC varies across sectors. It was announced in Budget 2022 that the DRC will be reduced from 87.5 percent to 83.3 percent from January 2024. Employers of S Pass and Work Permit holders are required to pay a monthly FWL to the government. The FWL varies according to the skills, qualifications, and experience of their employees. The FWL is set on a sector-by-sector basis and is subject to annual revisions. FWLs have been progressively increased for most sectors since 2012.
MOM requires employers to consider Singaporeans before hiring skilled professional foreigners. The Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), implemented in August 2014, affects employers who apply for EPs, the work pass for foreign professionals working in professional, manager, and executive (PME) posts. Companies have noted inconsistent and increasingly burdensome documentation requirements and excessive qualification criteria to approve EP applications. Under the rules, firms making new EP applications must first advertise the job vacancy in a new jobs bank administered by Workforce Singapore (WSG), http://www.mycareersfuture.gov.sg for at least 28 days. The jobs bank is free for use by companies and job seekers and the job advertisement must be open to all, including Singaporeans. Employers are encouraged to keep records of their interview process as proof that they have done due diligence in trying to look for a Singaporean worker. If an EP is still needed, the employer will have to make a statutory declaration that a job advertisement on http://www.mycareersfuture.gov.sg had been made.
Consistent with Singapore’s WTO obligations, intra-corporate transfers (ICT) are allowed for managers, executives, and specialists who had worked for at least one year in the firm before being posted to Singapore. ICT would still be required to meet all EP criteria, but the requirement for an advertisement on http://www.mycareersfuture.gov.sg would be waived. In April 2016, MOM outlined measures to refine the work pass applications process, looking not only at the qualifications of individuals, but at company-related factors. Companies found not to have a “healthy Singaporean core, lacking a demonstrated commitment to developing a Singaporean core, and not found to be “relevant” to Singapore’s economy and society, will be labeled “triple weak” and put on a watch list. Companies unable to demonstrate progress may have work pass privileges suspended after a period of scrutiny. Since 2016, MOM has placed approximately 1,200 companies on its FCF Watchlist. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices have worked with 260 companies to be successfully removed from the watchlist.
The Employment Act covers all employees under a contract of service, and under the act, employees who have served the company for at least two years are eligible for retrenchment benefits, and the amount of compensation depends on the contract of service or what is agreed collectively. Employers have to abide by notice periods in the employment contract before termination and stipulated minimum periods in the Employment Act in the absence of a notice period previously agreed upon, or provide salary in lieu of notice. Dismissal on grounds of wrongful conduct by the employee is differentiated from retrenchments in the labor laws and is exempted from the above requirements. Employers must notify MOM of retrenchments within five working days after they notify the affected employees to enable the relevant agencies to help affected employees find alternative employment and/or identify relevant training to enhance employability. Singapore does not provide unemployment benefits, but provides training and job matching services to retrenched workers. Labor laws are not waived in order to attract or retain investment in Singapore. There are no additional or different labor law provisions in free trade zones.
Collective bargaining is a normal part of labor-management relations in all sectors. Almost all unions are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the sole national federation of trade unions in Singapore, which has a close relationship with the PAP ruling party and the government. The current NTUC secretary-general is also a former minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. As of June, the NTUC had more than 1 million members. Given that nearly all unions are NTUC affiliates, the NTUC has almost exclusive authority to exercise collective bargaining power on behalf of employees. Union members may not reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and an employer. Although transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, employers consult with unions on both problems, and the Taskforce for Responsible Retrenchment and Employment Facilitation issues guidelines calling for early notification to unions of layoffs. Data on coverage of collective bargaining agreements is not publicly available. The Industrial Relations Act (IRA) regulates collective bargaining. The Industrial Arbitration Courts must certify any collective bargaining agreement before it is deemed in effect and can deny certification on public interest grounds. Additionally, the IRA restricts the scope of issues over which workers may bargain, excluding bargaining on hiring, transfer, promotion, dismissal, or reinstatement of workers.
Most labor disagreements are resolved through conciliation and mediation by MOM. Since April 2017, the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) under MOM provides advisory and mediation services, including mediation for salary and employment disputes. Where the conciliation process is not successful, the disputing parties may submit their dispute to the IAC for arbitration. Depending on the nature of the dispute, the court may be constituted either by the president of the IAC and a member of the Employer and Employee Panels, or by the president alone. The Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT) was established under the Employment Claims Act (2016). To bring a claim before the ECT, parties must first register their claims at the TADM for mediation. Mediation at TADM is compulsory. Only disputes which remain unresolved after mediation at TADM may be referred to the ECT.
The ECT hears statutory salary-related claims, contractual salary-related claims, dismissal claims from employees, and claims for salary in lieu of notice of termination by all employers. There is a limit of $21,200 on claims for cases with TADM mediation, and $14,100 for all other claims. In March 2019, MOM announced that 85 percent of salary claims had been resolved by TADM between April 2017 and December 2018. Salary-related disputes that are not resolved by mediation are covered by the Employment Claims Tribunals under the State Courts. Industrial disputes may also submit their case be referred to the tripartite Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC). The IAC composed has two panels: an employee panel and a management panel. For a majority of dispute hearings, a court is constituted comprising the president of the IAC and a member each from the employee and employer panels’ representatives and chaired by a judge. In some situations, the law provides for compulsory arbitration. The court must certify collective agreements before they go into effect. The court may refuse certification at its discretion on the ground of public interest.
The legal framework in Singapore provides for some restrictions in the registration of trade unions, labor union autonomy and administration, the right to strike, who may serve as union officers or employees, and collective bargaining. Under the Trade Union Act (TUA), every trade union must register with the Registrar of Trade Unions, which has broad discretion to grant, deny, or cancel union registration. The TUA limits the objectives for which unions can spend their funds, including for contributions to a political party or for political purposes, and allows the registrar to inspect accounts and funds “at any reasonable time.” Legal rights to strike are granted with restrictions under TUA. The law requires the majority of affected unionized workers to vote in favor of a strike by secret ballot, as opposed to the majority of those participating in the vote. Strikes cannot be conducted for any reason apart from a dispute in the trade or industry in which the strikers are employed, and it is illegal to conduct a strike if it is “designed or calculated to coerce the government either directly or by inflicting hardship on the community.” Workers in “essential services” are required to give 14 days’ notice to an employer before conducting a strike. Although workers, other than those employed in the three essential services of water, gas, and electricity, may strike, no workers did so since 1986 with the exception of a strike by bus drivers in 2012, but NTUC threatened to strike over concerns in a retrenchment process in July 2020. The law also restricts the right of uniformed personnel and government employees to organize, although the president may grant exemptions. Foreigners and those with criminal convictions generally may not hold union office or become employees of unions, but the ministry may grant exemptions.
The Employment Act, which prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor and the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA), strengthens labor trafficking victim protection, and governs labor protections. Other acts protecting the rights of workers include the Workplace Safety and Health Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Labor laws set the standard legal workweek at 44 hours, with one rest day each week, and establish a framework for workplaces to comply with occupational safety and health standards, with regular inspections designed to enforce the standards. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations establishing working conditions and comprehensive occupational safety and health (OSH) laws and implements enforcement procedures and promoted educational and training programs to reduce the frequency of job-related accidents. Changes to the Employment Act took effect on April 1, 2019, including for extension of core provisions to managers and executives, increasing the monthly salary cap, transferring adjudication of wrongful dismissal claims from MOM to the ECT, and increasing flexibility in compensating employees working during public holidays (for more detail see https://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/employment-act . All workers, except for public servants, domestic workers and seafarers are covered by the Employment Act, and additional time-based provisions for more vulnerable employees.
Singapore has no across the board minimum wage law, although there are some exceptions in certain low-skill industries. Generally, the government follows a policy of allowing free market forces to determine wage levels. In specific sectors where wages have stagnated and market practices such as outsourcing reduce incentive to upskill workers and limit their bargaining power, the government has implemented Progressive Wage Models to uplift wages. These are currently implemented in the cleaning, security, elevator maintenance, and landscape sectors and have been raised progressively. The National Wage Council (NWC), a tripartite body comprising representatives from the government, employers, and unions, recommends non-binding wage adjustments on an annual basis. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign firms, and across the private and public sectors. While the NWC wage guidelines are not mandatory, they are published under the Employment Act and form the basis of wage negotiations between unions and management. The NWC recommendations apply to all employees in both domestic and foreign law firms, and across the public and private sectors. The level of implementation is generally higher among unionized companies compared to non-unionized companies.
MOM and the Ministry of Home Affairs are responsible for combating labor trafficking and improving working conditions for workers, and generally enforce anti-trafficking legislation, although some workers in low-wage and unskilled sectors are vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse. PHTA sets out harsh penalties (including up to nine strokes of the cane and 15 years’ imprisonment) for those found guilty of trafficking, including forced labor, or abetting such activities. The government developed a mechanism for referral of potential trafficking-in-persons activities, to the interagency taskforce, co-chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Manpower. Some observers note that the country’s employer sponsorship system made legal migrant workers vulnerable to forced labor, because their abilities to change employers without the consent of the current employer are limited. MOM effectively enforces laws and regulations pertaining to child labor. Penalties for employers that violated child labor laws were subject to fines and/or imprisonment, depending on the violation. Government officials assert that child labor is not a significant issue. The incidence of children in formal employment is low, and almost no abuses are reported.
The USSFTA includes a chapter on labor protections. The labor chapter contains a statement of shared commitment by each party that the principles and rights set forth in Article 17.7 of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its follow-up are recognized and protected by domestic law, and each party shall strive to ensure it does not derogate protections afforded in domestic labor law as an encouragement for trade or investment purposes. The chapter includes the establishment of a labor cooperation mechanism, which promotes the exchange of information on ways to improve labor law and practice, and the advancement of effective implementation.
See the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report as well as the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
Under the 1966 Investment Guarantee Agreement with Singapore, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) (Now the Development Finance Corporation) offers insurance to U.S. investors in Singapore against currency inconvertibility, expropriation, and losses arising from war. Singapore became a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) in 1998. In March 2019, Singapore and the United States signed an MOU aimed at strengthening collaboration between the infrastructure agency of Singapore, Infrastructure Asia, and OPIC. Under the agreement, both countries will work together on information sharing, deal facilitation, and capacity building initiatives in sectors of mutual interest such as energy, natural resource management, water, waste, transportation, and urban development. The aim is to enhance Singapore-based and U.S. companies’ access to project opportunities, while building on Singapore’s role as an infrastructure hub in Asia.
Singapore’s domestic public infrastructure projects are funded primarily via Singapore government reserves or capital markets, reducing the scope for direct project financing subsidies by foreign governments.