Businesses, families would have been severely hit if Singapore had closed borders to migrant workers: MOM

Kok Yufeng – The Straits Times (

SINGAPORE – Singapore would have been hit hard by a shortfall of at least 100,000 workers and 30,000 domestic workers if migrant workers had not been allowed to enter after the circuit breaker period last year, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Tuesday (May 18).

This is about one-tenth of the total foreign workforce in Singapore. There were 984,100 migrant workers and 247,400 migrant domestic workers employed here as at last December.

MOM said the Republic would have had a labour shortage of 70,000 service sector workers – including those in essential services such as healthcare and cleaning – 30,000 construction workers and 30,000 domestic workers if Singapore had closed its borders last year.

The ministry revealed this in response to recent calls by members of the public to shut Singapore’s borders entirely in order to bring down the number of imported Covid-19 cases.

“The impact to businesses and families would have been severe,” the ministry said, echoing statements it previously made on the issue.

It noted that it has, since May 2, “completely stopped entry of all from South Asia”.

“At the same time, businesses have been appealing for more workers to be allowed to enter Singapore to address manpower shortages,” it said.

On Monday, key representatives from the construction industry and built environment sector issued a plea to the Government to allow foreign workers to enter Singapore in a safe and controlled manner.

The Construction Industry Joint Committee – which includes The Institution of Engineers, Singapore, the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore and the Singapore Contractors Association, among others – said the industry is supportive of the Government’s efforts to curb a resurgence of Covid-19 as new virus variants emerge here, but warned of an increasing risk of workplace incidents as the current reduced workforce is already working at maximum capacity.

MOM said on Tuesday that the outflow of migrant workers has exceeded the inflow over the past year, with many workers returning home at the end of their contracts.

As a result of border restrictions to mitigate the risk of imported Covid-19 cases, Singapore has not been able to adequately replace those who have left.

MOM did not say how many migrant workers have arrived here since the circuit breaker last year.

However, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told Parliament last week that there was a net outflow of about 5,600 work permit and S Pass holders from the construction, marine, process and service sectors each month from March last year to April this year.

This adds up to a net outflow in this period of more than 72,000 workers from these sectors.

From November, entry approval was granted to an average of 5,100 workers per month to alleviate the manpower shortage, but Dr Tan said this inflow could not be sustained due to the dynamic and fluid Covid-19 situation in the workers’ home countries.

Last year, the number of work permit holders in the construction, marine and process sectors fell by about 16 per cent from 370,100 to 311,000 workers – a drop of about 59,000 workers.

Meanwhile, the service sector lost 42,000 workers between March last year and March this year, Dr Tan said.

MOM said that while it makes sense to try to retain existing workers, which businesses are already doing by offering higher retention bonuses and facilitating transfers of workers to new employers, many workers are understandably homesick and worried about their families at home.

“Border restrictions will impact Singaporeans’ daily lives and this will be felt more keenly in the coming weeks and months,” the ministry said in its statement.

“Our restrictions on inflow of workers from higher-risk countries will also likely persist for some time, until the situation improves. This is the only way we can ensure the safe inflow of workers, while managing the risk of transmission in the community.”