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Foreign Workers in Asian Economic Successes

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Seven of the world’s ten richest economies by real gross domestic product (RGDP) per capita are in Asia and the Middle East, and all have sizeable populations of foreign migrant workers (FMWs) that have contributed greatly to growth. The proper handling of FMW involvement in an economy is crucial for continued prosperity.

Despite the widespread reliance of many economies on FMWs, much of the related research has focused on the narrower issue of the impact of foreign labor on local employment and the resultant downward pressure on local wages (e.g., Borjas et al. 1996. Goto 1998). In comparison, very little evaluation has been done on the extent of their contribution to economic growth across countries. One reason for this omission could be that for completeness, any evaluation of the contributions of FMWs would have to take into account not only direct economic effects, such as the potential crowding out of employment of competing local workers, but also the long-term consequences for the host country’s productivity and competitiveness. While the availability of FMWs helps countries with small populations, there has not been much discussion about whether the fact that such workers are usually transient could ultimately have consequences for the accumulation of experience and learning in the host country. If such a problem occurred, it could manifest in the form of poorer productivity performance (Tan 2012). I aim to discuss this issue from the perspective of selected Asian and Middle Eastern economies whose dependence on FMWs has been a prominent policy issue.

Contribution of FMWs

Tables 1 and 2 highlight how important FMWs are to these flourishing economies. Of the ten richest economies in terms of RGDP per capita in 2010, Qatar ranked first and Singapore fourth (Table 1). Qatar’s FMW numbers stood at 74.2% of the total population—nearly double Singapore’s 38.7%. Table 2 shows the top economies in employment growth, and again, Qatar and Singapore stand out, having the first and ninth fastest rates of job growth from 2006 to 2010. Despite the magnitudes of the migrant workforces, Table 1 also suggests that there is more to economic performance in terms of RGDP growth than access to FMWs alone.

Table 1. Top 10 Economies by RGDP Per Capita and Migrants as Proportion of Population

Tab1

Source: databank.worldbank.org
RGDP = real GDP.

Table 2. Top 10 Economies Employment Growth, 2006–2010, 2001–2005

Tab2

Source: databank.worldbank.org

The seven Asian and Eastern economies in Table 1 comprise oil-rich Gulf states and East Asian economies. In terms of the pace of increase in employment, Qatar’s experience is closest to that of Singapore. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, these two economies created jobs far in excess of their natural populations’ capacity to meet the demand for workers. This was welcome news for the two countries and stood in stark contrast to the chronic unemployment afflicting many of the world’s large, well-established economies.

The lack of large native population bases in Qatar and Singapore meant that their employment growth in recent years has been made possible through the availability of FMWs. Qatar’s economic success has been a relatively recent phenomena, occurring only after a change of leadership in the early 1990s. To exploit its oil wealth, it turned to foreign workers. In contrast, Singapore had been reliant on FMWs since its independence. However, after experiencing downturns in 2001 and 2003, Singapore’s government embarked on a rapid upgrading of its transportation, tourism, and housing infrastructure. The resulting jobs boom in the services and construction sectors more than made up for the relatively tepid performance of the export-dependent manufacturing sector (National Population and Talent Division, Singapore 2013).

Three key facts are relevant to FMWs’ contribution to the success of these economies. First, the phenomenon of relying on migrant workers is not new. At various times in history, fast-growing economies have relied on migrant workers to exploit the momentum of the economic opportunities that have come their way. Second, the high employment growth rates for the economies in question are a recent phenomenon, as the rates have been lower in the past. For example, Table 2 illustrates that Qatar’s employment growth rate from 2001 to 2005 was one-third of that from 2006 to 2010. Singapore’s employment growth rate was also much lower from 2001 to 2005 than from 2006 to 2010. And third, migrant population proportions can drop sharply as illustrated by Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Migrants as Proportion of Total Population, 1995–2010

Fig1

Source: World Bank’s World Development Indicators database available at: data.worldbank.org Accessed December 2012.

Hence, despite their rarity, the high employment growth rates of Singapore and Qatar are not new. What is unusual, especially in Singapore’s case, is the pace of the increase in recent years and the continuing demand by local employers for FMWs. This is evident from the concerns about the tightening of restrictions on the supply of FMWs, which includes a combination of higher levies on each FMW employed and more stringent quotas requiring employers to match their FMW headcount with a prescribed number of Singaporean employees.

Unique Challenges

The sheer magnitude of the proportions of FMWs in Qatar and Singapore, as well as in the other highlighted economies, suggests that their contributions and management present policy implications that differ greatly from Western countries. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States also rely on FMWs but handle the issue differently because they do not have the same stringent physical limitations that restrict a small island nation like Singapore. By accommodating the issue from an immigration standpoint, such countries have systematically acculturated their FMWs. Indeed, it is common for many prospective migrants to enter these countries as young students, and then remain as permanent residents or as new citizens.

The rising inflow of FMWs in Asia and the Middle East suggests that their aim is to meet short-term economic needs rather than to stay long term. Such FMWs could be managed based on a short-term perspective, for example, by housing those at the lower end of the income scale in dormitories. It should not be surprising then that the narrow scope of the individual migrant’s experience in the host economy and lack of acculturation would limit the depth of the involvement of such FMWs in productivity improvements.

From the perspective of economic strategy, however, the contributions of FMWs extend beyond their contributions to immediate economic needs. A key aspect of the employment of FMWs is their role in counter-cyclical policy management. This may account for the declines in the migrant proportions for the Gulf states shown in Figure 2.

Singapore’s handling of unemployment is a case in point. Figure 2 shows that in two of Singapore’s last three contractions in annual economic output, the labor market downturn post-dated the contraction. However, the last downturn, caused by the 2008 global financial crisis, was unusual for the net gain in employment during the year of the recession in 2009. The net gain came about through the government’s innovative job credits scheme that tilted the cost advantage to favor Singaporean workers over their FMW counterparts. This example emphasizes the importance of wage costs in influencing the demand for FMWs. As Asian and Middle Eastern economies develop, wage relativities will change, which will shift the pattern of FMW employment in the coming years.

The emphasis on skills over costs is the guiding principle behind the system of levies and quotas that Singapore uses to manage its foreign manpower requirements (Ministry of Manpower, Singapore 2013). Foreigners working in Singapore are categorized according to their roles, educational qualifications and skills level, with the latter proxied by the monthly remuneration of the individual concerned. Employers who satisfy quota requirements may employ foreign personnel under the appropriate quota limits subject to the payment of a levy. The system is graduated to discourage excessive reliance on low-wage FMWs, in favor of the more highly qualified and skilled ones.

Figure 2. Annual Economic Growth and Employment Changes in Singapore, 1992–2010

Fig2
Source: RGDP (real gross domestic product) growth is from the Annual Economic Survey, published by Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry; employment growth is from the Report on the Labour Force, published by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower.

Looking to the Future

In recent years, the reliance on FMWs appears to have been driven by short-term economic contingencies rather than any long-term strategic plan. FMWs bring enormous benefits to their host economies, and their home countries benefit from the incomes they repatriate. As the 21st century progresses and Asia’s economic march continues, there are concerns in some of the fastest growing economies about potential labor shortages. Ironically, some will occur in previously populous countries that earlier had surplus labor, which constituted the first waves of FMWs.

In some countries, such as Singapore, there is concern that FMWs are “crowding out” opportunities for citizens. The greatest economic challenge that countries with large number of FMWs face is how to manage their reliance on FMWs to ensure the viability, vibrancy and unfettered movement of talent and ideas for the coming decades.

Policymakers dealing with labor issues need to anticipate a much more open and integrated pan-Asian economic landscape. In such a setting, workers are likely to be more inclined to operate regionally rather than be bound by national boundaries. In small economies like Brunei Darussalam; Hong Kong; and Singapore, the disdain for national boundaries will be even stronger. Ultimately, the natural progress of economic development will favor the freer movement for FMWs, not less. So early planning of FMWs involvement in an economy is crucial. At the same time, more restrictive policies should be avoided, and instead governments should recognize that the inevitable shift in wage relativities will affect employer demand for FMWs.

written by Randolph Tan of Asia Pathways. see more.

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Agnes Yee, Legal & Compliance Recruiter of Space Executive

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Agnes Yee started Space Executive in Singapore, which is a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

What’s your story?
After graduation, I joined a design media company as a Business Development Executive, during the era when ‘reading a magazine online’ was unheard of. I believe that laid the foundation for being unfazed by rejections.

I fell into recruitment pre-GFC and rode the highs and lows in the early years. A decade later, I decided to set up my own recruitment company, partly because I could. I’m acutely aware of the face that being an Asian female in Singapore is sometimes a privilege, and that many women in the world are living a very different existence.
Thereafter, we joined Space Executive as part of a merger. I am currently the Partner of Space Executive, a recruitment company focused specialist disciplines, including Legal, Finance, Digital, Sales and Marketing and Change. We also run Space Ventures, a venture capital business, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
On a daily basis, we’re influencing how one spends a third of their day. It is interesting how the Internet has transformed the industry, and I’m excited to see how we can harness technology to bring us to the next phase of this business.

The VC is an extension of applying our skills and experience in reading people. We very much invest in the people as much as the idea. Being a native Singaporean, it’s been exhilarating watching Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of ideas; and young entrepreneurs simply daring to dream.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I love that I speak both English and Mandarin, grew up playing with Indian friends and eating Malay food.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the low barriers of entry to set up a business, but has to be China (and Hong Kong) for their hunger and constant innovation.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
青春不要留白 which translates to ‘Don’t waste your youth.’

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has gone against the grain.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It wasn’t recent but reading the article on https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html never fails to blow my mind how little time we have left. Charting our lives in weeks, and realising I only have enough time left to enjoy 60 Christmas turkeys, read 300 books (all if I’m lucky); and mostly, I’m left with the last 5% of the time that I spend in-person with my parents.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’m cognisant that every decision I made in life has brought me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change one thing. But I’d really like to have had more time to travel.

How do you unwind?
Exercise and wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Trekking any mountain in Asia. It brings us back to the most basic. To overcome elements of nature and our own mind.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Start with Why, Simon Sinek

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive started in Singapore, a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. We assist organisations in accessing a targeted and specialised, and often times transient talent pool.

Out of Singapore, we have recruited across 14 countries; and have embarked on our global expansion plans with offices in Hong Kong and London this year, and US, Japan and Europe in the following years.

Space Ventures provides funding, management and financial guidance to young businesses with original ideas. We have invested in peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring, social media education, and other start-ups spanning diverse industries. We are always interested in hearing more about new ideas.

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/agnesyee/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo, Founder of iPayMy

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo founded iPaymy for Business – a secure and easy to use
platform enabling SMEs to pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today.

What’s your story?
I’m Chrystie Dao-Szabo, and I’ve worked as an international banker for over 22 years. During that time, I travelled through Asia, Australia and Europe, and everywhere I saw how my clients struggled with managing their finances and keeping cash around.

I wanted to use my experience to help them, but I also knew the solution they needed didn’t exist yet. This pushed me to give up on my secure career, and instead look into the innovative world of FinTech for an answer.

This is how I founded iPaymy – at its launch, a platform to help consumers pay their monthly expenses using their credit cards. We’ve grown a lot since, and today, iPaymy for Business is a platform that allows business owners to use their credit cards to pay for rent, salaries, invoices and taxes, freeing up their cash for business-critical operations.

What excites you most about your industry?
What excites me most about FinTech is it’s culture of constant disruption, thanks to cool and innovative products and services coming out every day.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Australia and worked in Asia, Europe and Australia. Being raised by traditional Vietnamese parents meant that deep down I was still an Asian at heart, so I have a strong connection with the region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore of course. It’s easy to do business, English is the main language, and the infrastructures like public transportation are great. Also, the government supports local innovation in multiple ways, like giving grants for SMEs and FinTechs.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Keep giving, and one day you will receive.

Who inspires you?
My parents. My father had a successful business in Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. After the war, my father was sent to a re-education camp for three years, which meant my mum had to bring up two young kids – a 3-year-old, me and my 4-year old brother on her own.

In 1980, we all fled Vietnam on a boat and arrived in Sydney, Australia via refugee camps in Indonesia and Singapore. There, my parents had to start over with nothing to their names and only AUD 50 given to them by the Australian government.
They went on to build several businesses in Australia!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The number of young and smart people who have carved out successful careers by founding their own startups (or joining really cool ones). When I was starting out my career, doing any of these was not a viable option; it was either working for an accounting firm, an insurance company or a bank.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
If I were starting out my career now, I would choose the path of joining a startup as you get to learn so much about running a business and how to assemble a winning team.

How do you unwind?
I like travelling to a beach or a resort destination and just relaxing by the pool or beach. I also like to unwind after work with a glass of champagne or wine, and a bowl of truffle fries.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. I love the people and the spicy Thai food.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The E-Myth. It’s a book series that dismantles common myths about entrepreneurship in different industries.

Shameless plug for your business:
With iPaymy for Business, SMEs can pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today. SMEs love iPaymy because it works like a credit card, but pays like cash.

iPaymy’s secure and easy to use platform reliably delivers payments to vendors while freeing up cash and providing access to interest free credit. Forget the delays and aggravations that come with traditional SME financing options. Schedule recurring payments, manage invoices, set payment reminders, and monitor payment status all from one dashboard.

It’s never been easier for SMEs to meet monthly payment obligations while keeping cash available to fuel growth, bridge receivable gaps, and make immediate investment in the supplies, services, and expertise needed to drive a growing business forward.

How can people connect with you?
You can find me on LinkedIn or contact me by email.
My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrystiedaoszabo/
My email: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
https://twitter.com/ceedeees

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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