While the government prided itself on creating 121 thousand jobs last year two-thirds of these went to foreigners. Manufacturing employment hardly grew while the bulk of job creation was in services and construction, where salaries and productivity are much lower than in manufacturing. The proportion of foreigners in the workforce edged up slightly to 37% of the total. This makes a mockery of the government’s avowed intention to restrict foreign workers to around a third of the workforce.
The figures for manufacturing need a close scrutiny. Policy proposals from some of the contestants in GE 2011 to phase out manufacturing would be a mistake if not disastrous. Rather than depending on cheap foreign labour, we need policies that move us up the value-chain, both in manufacturing and services. This is brought home by the latest statistics. These illustrate the absurdity of current government policies when two-thirds of jobs created last year went to foreigners and were in the service and construction sectors where average wage levels are much lower than in manufacturing.
Recently reading about the Republican primaries put me in mind of some of the more right-wing Tea Party candidates’ crazy ideas. One of the more notable themes has been attacking Obama’s bail-out of the auto industry in 2009 which prevented GM and Chrysler closing down and the loss practically of the whole US auto industry sector with hundreds of thousands of skilled high-paying jobs. Even a simple cost-benefit analysis of the losses in terms of lower taxes and higher welfare payments in the absence of the bailout would have outweighed the costs.
In addition a lot of research has gone into the positive externalities associated with clusters of particular industries in a specific geographic region and that the presence of complementary industries enhances entrepreneurship and start-up activity. If the companies had closed down then it is likely that there would have been a vicious circle of knock-on effects on related industries and the loss of a big part of the skill set to foreign competitors with the result being permanently lower incomes, employment and taxes. Sure there would have been new jobs created in other areas such as services but these would likely have been lower-paying.
If I was being sufficiently Machiavellian, the sheer stupidity of the objections might lead one to conclude that the Republicans advocating this strategy were Japanese, Korean or German agents. Obama’s recent advocacy of a strategy to reward companies manufacturing in the US and negate the advantages of transferring production to tax haven countries by imposing a minimum unitary tax are, besides being electioneering, a deliberate strategy to reverse the loss of high productivity jobs to countries which pursue a more active industrial policy.
In Singapore also there has been some debate about the proper role of manufacturing in the economy. During the GE one of the parties advocated the phasing out of manufacturing in Singapore and concentrating on services instead. The party also pointed out that the proportion of Singaporeans studying engineering is falling while claiming that most young Singaporeans prefer to work in the service industry. Again this is a failure of government policy not a reason for abandoning engineering as a discipline. Certainly remuneration levels for engineering careers compare favourably with other career areas. Chemical engineers in the US now command the highest starting salaries. Also the preference of young people for service jobs, if correct, is probably the result of the government’s policy of subsidizing low-tech manufacturing through cheap foreign labour which has resulted in wage levels that are unappealing. Engineers are also highly sought after in the financial sector.
One of the more ridiculous ideas involved giving $10 billion to manufacturers to phase out their operations here and relocate them to neighbouring countries. This is worse than the current tax write-offs given in the US for closing down factories that the Democrats have rightly targeted to correct the bias against domestic manufacturing. While we need to stop the subsidies given to low-tech labour-intensive manufacturing which is reliant on cheap foreign labour this is not a reason for give up on manufacturing altogether. We just need to make sure we move up the value chain into high-tech high value-added industries. While the government was rightly critical of the idea of phasing out manufacturing, they of course ignored the fact that the government’s strategy continues to favour low-tech industry by allowing ready access to cheap foreign labour.
The government’s policy has always been of growing GDP in the easiest possible manner while neglecting its primary duty of raising the incomes and living standards of Singaporeans. Even its biggest recent success, in luring a big chunk of global pharmaceutical manufacturing to Singapore through tax breaks and holidays appears opportunistic. It will be interesting to see if it can be sustained in the long-term given the moves in the US to neutralize attempts to lure domestic industry away through tax breaks.
The UK government has also proposed the use of tax incentives to lure domestic industry back to the UK. I wrote back in 2009 about the dangers of a zero-sum game which ended up benefitting no one but the multinational companies (http://theonlinecitizen.com/2009/05/us-tax-rule-changes-and-implications-for-singapore-the-prisoner%E2%80%99s-dilemma/)
The worrying sign is that despite the solemn promises to phase out foreign labour during GE 2011 the PAP government is going the other way. Just one example is the 26 new hotels slated to open by 2014 with 5,500 new rooms where the vast majority of the jobs will go to foreigners.
The inescapable conclusion is that we do not need this absurd over dependence on foreign labour to create prosperity for Singaporeans. We should not give up on manufacturing either, just ensure that we move up the value chain. It is true that modern manufacturing uses much less labour. Over the last ten years US manufacturing output has expanded by a third while the number of people employed has fallen by a third. However service industries are likely to see a similar “hollowing out” as advances in software permit rapid productivity gains. But do we need so many jobs? By reducing our dependence on foreign labour we could have fewer but higher productivity and higher paying jobs but a larger share for Singaporeans. In manufacturing we should aim to be like Germany rather than attempting to compete with China on labour costs.