THE Government's current drive to cap the hiring of foreign workers aims to push businesses towards higher productivity.
In theory at least, this would gradually wean businesses off their dependency on low-cost and low-skilled foreign labour. Bosses will sit up and invest in automation, as well as the training and retraining of their local staff - and thus nudge the country towards greater efficiency.
The drive - which includes the raising of foreign worker levies progressively from July 2010 and the tightening of foreign-worker quotas - has led to a rare show of public disapproval. Major associations have warned of a labour shortage and multinational companies have even talked about packing their bags.
These constituencies have their concerns. But it is the services sector that has been hit the hardest. Here, foreigners can make up only half of a company's total workforce, compared with other industries like manufacturing, which have a 65 per cent quota.
Its job vacancies stood at 41,200 as at the end of September last year, making up 76 per cent of the total number of vacancies in Singapore.
Latest figures also show that the industry faces an average monthly resignation rate of 2.3 per cent, above the national rate of 2.1 per cent. The restaurant, hotel and retail industries, however, see monthly resignation rates of between 3 and 4.7 per cent.
Arguably, there is a way forward for Singaporean companies looking at reducing foreign worker numbers and increasing productivity.
In Japan, the Kura 'revolving sushi' restaurant chain poured $10 million into equipping each of its 262 restaurants with machines that manage, make sushi, serve, track costs and even clean up after customers.
In the Netherlands, automated 'shopping walls' greet shoppers at some malls. Shoppers swipe their credit cards and items fall into a delivery hatch.
Automation efforts here, however, have not gone past novelty in the service sector. Smaller operations cannot afford the cost, while bigger ones struggle to achieve the constant flow of orders to make the machines worth the expense.
Restaurant owners say Singaporeans' demand for food variety, and the limit on the number of customers in this relatively small country, renders large-scale automation unfeasible.
Mr Andrew Tjioe, who owns the Tung Lok restaurant chain, reckons the lack of constant traffic is the reason why a fried rice robot they invested in at fast-food chain Ruyi is under-utilised at some outlets. 'How often do people order fried rice?' he asked, pointing out that most restaurants in countries like Japan tend to offer only a handful of menu items.
It is, after all, one thing to repetitively weld steel frames, and quite another to lay on extra cheese and get a souffle from kitchen to table in 90 seconds.
If automation does not quite hack it, there is another way: a change in mindsets to increase local participation in the services sector.
But businesses here say locals snub the industry, dismissing it as 'only for the lowly educated, for those who cannot find anything better'. With their modest wages and weekend shifts, service positions - waiting tables, cleaning and working the shop floor - come up tops on a list of jobs that Singaporeans shun, according to recruitment agencies.
At a career fair that Millennium & Copthorne International held recently, locals constituted a mere 1 per cent of applicants. Even then, all were applying only for managerial positions with regular hours.
The education levels of Singaporeans have also been on the rise, and with it, their expectations. Parents invest in their children and expect them to take up 'respectable jobs'. Understandably, this would exclude wait staff, retail assistant and housekeeping positions.
On this front, employers can play a critical role in changing perceptions of working in the service sector.
The few outlets which have taken a long-term approach have seen it pay off. Not only do they keep their staff, but they also meet their ultimate goal of keeping up the love between regulars and their favourite restaurants.
Eateries like Broth and Brazil Churrasco have a culture of rewarding staff, and encourage customers to do the same through tipping. They have a structured career path and pay above market rates.
At Broth restaurant on Duxton Hill, employees are paid 15 per cent more than market rates and stay an average of 3.5 years. Its owner closed the restaurant for a day three months ago to take his crew of 24 part- and full-timers (including the dishwasher) to Universal Studios. Apart from two kitchen helpers, all his employees are local.
Mr Steven Hansen, 40, says this is because he did away with service charge and now divides tips equally among staff on shift. Staff performance has skyrocketed overnight and the restaurant has never had to advertise a job opening. The secret, he professes, is letting staff feel service from the customer's side - letting them be the guest.
At Sixth Avenue's Brazil Churrasco, employees stay an average of eight years. Its operations manager puts this down to the outlet's flexible hours and family-friendly atmosphere. Tips are distributed to workers and during lull periods they are allowed to take time off - and their pay packets are not docked.
At the Ritz-Carlton, employees - as well as guests - are referred to as 'ladies and gentlemen', one of the things the HR department credits the hotel chain's low job turnover rate to. Every staff member can also spend as much as $2,000 without management approval to resolve a guest's problem, giving them the room to make and take ownership of decisions.
In theory, reducing the number of foreign workers equates to higher productivity. But until mindsets change in the long term, local participation in the services sector is unlikely to budge much.
Just remember: When it comes to a fine dining experience, there's nothing like the expert hand of a passionate cook, the knowledge of a sommelier, and the warmth of a restaurant that knows genuinely how to keep one going back for more.
That said, increasing productivity and local input in the services sector is a two-way street - good service is dependent on consumers showing a little more appreciation.
Perhaps as consumers, we should all return the favour with a little warmth and a dose of encouragement.