FIRMS in the petrochemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors will have more incentive to train and retain their skilled foreign workers.

The Government will introduce new ways for firms in the process sector, which employs about 30,000 foreign workers mostly from India and Bangladesh, to get a special skilled worker status for their workers, called R1.

Firms with workers under the R1 criteria pay lower levies, as the scheme is meant to encourage firms to hire skilled workers, said Manpower Minister Tan Chuan- Jin yesterday.

Currently, firms can get the R1 status for workers if they have skills qualifications such as a high school diploma or a Nitec certificate from the Institute of Technical Education.

But by 2017, the worker must earn at least $1,200 a month, up from the current average pay of $800 to $1,000 - on top of the qualifications criteria - for firms to get the R1 status.

At the same time, firms with workers who have at least two years of experience and earn $1,200 can also apply for the R1 status, said Mr Tan.

"In fact, the enhanced criteria will be a more reliable way of identifying workers who are genuinely skilled and productive," said Mr Tan, who added that the initial changes will take two years to allow companies to adjust.

From 2019, the Government will tighten the criteria for companies to get the R1 status by raising the salary and experience level to three years for workers eligible for the status.

The workers must also undergo Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications programmes to properly certify their skills before they can qualify for the R1 status.

Currently, firms need to pay only $300 in basic tier levies for R1 workers, and this will remain the case until next year.

But firms will have to pay $500 in levies for the lower-skilled R2 workers, up from the current $450.

Mr Charles Quek, president of the Association of Process Industry, said that process firms will be motivated to train their foreign workers.

"To justify the higher pay, firms will have to invest in training workers and machinery," he added.

Mr Tan said the Manpower Ministry will also make it easier for sector firms to employ experienced foreign workers.

Currently, firms that want to hire foreign workers who are already working here have to get the workers to leave Singapore first. This is because foreign workers cannot be in Singapore while their work permits are issued.

But from June 2017, experienced workers can remain in Singapore while their new work passes are being issued.

Mr Tan also announced that foreign workers in the construction, process and marine sectors will be allowed to take on additional duties as drivers. This will help companies reduce the cost of hiring additional drivers.