Coronavirus: Business leaders call for flexibility on foreign manpower, cooperation and calm

Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng called on the Government yesterday to exercise greater flexibility over foreign manpower policies to help alleviate the labour squeeze some businesses are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

This could include allowing foreign workers already in Singapore, especially those from China, to change employers without returning to their home countries between contracts, or letting employers bring in more workers from non-traditional source countries such as Myanmar, he said.

Work-pass holders with recent travel history to mainland China now need prior approval to enter Singapore and have to serve a mandatory 14-day leave of absence upon their return.

In the short term, businesses also hope for help in managing rentals, foreign worker levies and training costs, said Mr Teo, adding that the Government and banks could also provide financing and guarantees for loans.

He was among several business and trade association leaders who spoke to the media yesterday after a dialogue with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing.

They called on companies to help one another cope with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, and for Singaporeans to continue with life as normally as possible.

“At this time, building relationships is very important, helping your suppliers, helping your customers get the thing owed done together,” said Mr Ernie Koh, executive director of furniture manufacturer Koda.

“If your balance sheet is strong, and you are able to help, you should help. The big boys help the small boys.”

For instance, he has offered cash advances to some of his suppliers in China who are struggling to pay rent and wages as factories have shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus.

Trade associations and chambers are also looking at how best to help members.

Mr Koh, who is presidential adviser at the Singapore Furniture Industries Council, said the association is considering an assistance scheme to help members with training, finances, and possibly microfinancing.

It rolled out a support package of around $1 million during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, he said.

Singapore Manufacturing Federation deputy president Bicky Bhangu said the group is working with small and medium-sized enterprises to strategise how to remain sustainable and operational amid lower demand.

Meanwhile, Singapore National Employers Federation vice-president Alexander Melchers said that it was important to ensure that measures put in place now “don’t stop us from living a normal life”.

“To close the borders and to stop business are not a solution in the long term; they will help us in the short term to contain (the virus), to understand it better,” he said.

Mr Teo added in Mandarin that people should not panic. For example, if someone in a building falls sick, there is no need for the whole building to evacuate as that would be overreacting.

“It is not just about a virus, but about confidence, and about how our whole country can unite and meet the challenge,” he said.

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