THE Employment Pass (EP) framework for hiring of foreigners will be tightened later this year to ensure a level playing field for citizens in the workforce and build up a Singapore core.

Any such refinement, however, will not mean that the country is closing itself off to opportunities and insisting that companies hire citizens regardless of merit, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday as he set out the thinking behind the impending change.

Singaporeans must remain open to the world for jobs and opportunities, even as there is scope to build in more safeguards against discriminatory hiring and put in place fair practices.

Given the larger proportion of Singaporeans who will enter the workforce as professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) in the future due to better educational levels, the EP framework will be adjusted, especially for the lowest-level Q1 pass holders. These are workers earning between $3,000 and $4,500 monthly.

The intent is to help level the playing field for junior to mid-level PMEs, Mr Tan said, as they may face competition from foreigners who have the same qualifications but are willing to take lower pay.

"There is a real impact as it can deprive our young of the opportunities they need to learn on- the-job and progress to more senior positions later on," he said during the debate on his ministry's budget.

The change to the EP framework was first raised by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget statement last month. It is the latest in steps to tighten eligibility requirements for this sector. At the start of last year, for instance, the minimum income for a Q1 Pass was raised from $2,800 to $3,000.

To ensure citizens are given fair consideration, the Manpower Ministry has been studying the work pass frameworks of other countries to explore how it can incorporate their best features and adapt them to local needs.

Stakeholders will be consulted in the coming months, to further explore and develop a practical fair employment framework.

"It is only fair and reasonable that foreign firms and foreigners working here bear a responsibility to the local communities. In a sense, this is a social compact. We do not require global firms to give preferential treatment to locals, but they must be fair to Singaporeans," said Mr Tan.

"There must be equal opportunities for our people whether at hiring or in advancement. There has to be a level playing field."

Mr Tan gave an illustration of what the Government finds "completely unacceptable".

A firm put up an online job advertisement saying it wanted to recruit only people of a certain nationality. Once the authorities were alerted, the unnamed company was ordered to remove it immediately. Its work pass privileges were suspended and the Government asked to see the firm's senior management.

Its privileges remain suspended and the Government will not hesitate to enforce such measures if similar issues arise with other firms, he warned. Mr Tan added: "We expect all employers doing business in Singapore to comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices."

To work against bias, the Government will rely on a combination of measures, including making the existing work pass framework more stringent, and relying on whistle-blowers within companies to report discriminatory practices.

To make jobs and workplaces better for citizens, the Government is also setting aside $170 million over the next three years for an all-in-one scheme to attract and retain more local workers, and improve their work-life harmony. This WorkPro scheme, which comes into effect next month, amalgamates three separate ones that push for work-life balance, help firms hire older workers, and aid those wanting to re-enter the workforce.

Building the Singapore core, Mr Tan concluded, is important as it provides a stable base for citizens to meet their aspirations.

"On our part, we aim to create better jobs, wages and opportunities for our people," he pledged.