Dec 9, 2007
How much is this? And please speak in English
China workers may be cheaper to hire, but their lack of English is putting off some customers
By Mavis Toh & Shuli Sudderuddin
STEP into the toy department of Isetan Scotts and chances are you will be served by Zhang Jia Le from north-eastern China.
The cheerful 20-year-old quit his studies, borrowed $7,000 from relatives and came to Singapore to work three months ago.
The Ji Lin native who said he lost interest in studying, remarked: 'The environment here is better and we learn how to handle and sell many different kinds of products.'
He is among a growing number of front-line China workers in the service industry.
Mainland Chinese are making their presence felt not only in foodcourts and hawker centres but also in shopping malls, supermarkets and petrol stations.
Employers like these workers because they are hard-working and are willing to take jobs shunned by Singaporeans.
But the reception from others has been less than warm. In the past two weeks, four people have written to the Forum page of The Straits Times commenting on the ubiquitous China worker.
The letter writers said these workers are taking jobs away from Singaporeans and questioned their suitability, saying that many do not speak English.
One exasperated reader, Mr Murali Sharma, described how he could not get a glass of warm water from a waitress from China at a wedding banquet.
The 71-year-old retiree said: 'I can't speak Mandarin and she couldn't speak English. It was so frustrating.'
The Sunday Times visited 23 coffee shops and foodcourts in the past week and found China workers serving in at least eight eateries. At a coffee shop in Braddell, up to 10 of the 25 employees were China nationals.
Their vocabulary is typically restricted to job-related terms but sometimes it is not even sufficient for work.
Ms Sharidah Zaitun, 47, a part-time editor, has had frustrating encounters with service staff from China at food centres and shops who cannot understand her.
She said: 'Singapore has an international community and speaking English is a must.'
Even some Chinese Singaporeans have problems. Not all can speak Mandarin and they get by using dialects such as Hokkien or pasar Malay in hawker centres.
Mrs Maggie Goh, 61, a retiree who speaks only Hokkien and English, said she has resorted to pointing to items on the menus in restaurants.
Just on Friday, she was served by a waiter from China at a restaurant in Parkway Parade who could not understand English. 'He kept speaking in Mandarin even though I spoke to him in English. I ended up pointing to items on the menu. It was a struggle,' she said.
Expats in particular are having difficulty with the language barrier.
A Filipina accounts manager, Denise Iroy, 31, recounted how she once spent 15 minutes trying to explain to a salesman from China that she wanted to buy an adaptor.
'I tried to speak slowly but he still could not understand me. In the end, the manager had to come and assist me.'
Employers and labour agents said the influx of China workers came after rules were relaxed to allow them to work in the service industry.
They said service-sector companies can now hire work permit holders for up to 45 per cent of their total workforce with China workers making up 5 per cent of that.
The Manpower Ministry could not say how many China workers are in the service industry but interviews with labour agents suggest that demand is hotting up.
Agent Zen Tan said that from July to December, his agency supplied about 3,600 China workers to companies in the service sector. This month alone, demand has gone up by 20 per cent.
He said: 'A lot of these jobs require long hours and Singaporeans do not want to take them.'
Mr K.H. Hong, who owns a chain of 10 coffee shops islandwide, said he hires China workers because they are 'hard-working, willing to work overtime and eager to learn'.
It also does not hurt that a China worker's pay is $1,000, about 10 per cent lower than what a Singaporean or Malaysian earns - because he is usually inexperienced. Mr Hong has about 40 China workers in all.
Ms Shereen Leong, senior human resource executive of foodcourt operator Koufu, which has 21 outlets, said local workers are scarce in the tight labour market. The company has 29 China workers out of its pool of 503 workers.
One such person is Wu Ye Li, who has been manning the dessert stall at Koufu's Toa Payoh outlet for two years.
The 34-year-old started out serving customers but has since learnt to prepare all 15 items on the menu.
She works 12 hours a day, gets two days off a month and earns $1,000 monthly.
She admitted that the first months at work were frustrating because she could not understand her customers' orders.
'Language was a problem, the Singapore slang is different and I knew little English,' she said. But now, she can speak simple English to her customers.
Ms Julia Tay, deputy human resource manager of Isetan, hired four China workers in the past four months after interviewing them via webcam.
She thinks that they would be more committed to their jobs because of the large sums they've paid labour agents to hook them up with jobs in Singapore. The amount can be as high as $8,000.
She said: 'Though having a basic command of English is important, the willingness to learn is more important.'
The China workers are paid the same amount as the other workers - $1,100 a month. The company does not give them English language lessons.
The store, which has 600 retail assistants, plans to place up to three China workers in each of its four branches.
Bata Singapore, which employs 11 China nationals as sales staff, tackles the language problem by enrolling them in a week-long basic English course.
Ms Corrine Goh, manager of the Peninsula Plaza branch, which has two China workers, said the company preferred to hire China nationals over English-speaking Filipinos because they are cheaper.
China nationals get $1,000 a month compared to $1,500 to $1,800 for Filipinos.
She said: 'Of course language can be a problem, but the workers try their best. We hire them based on how much they are willing to learn and how far we think they can go.' She said that there have been no customer complaints.
While some customers may be unhappy with the China workers' weak grasp of English, employers said the situation is not likely to change given the tight labour market and Singaporeans' reluctance to work in the service industry.
Mr Hong Poh Heng, chairman of the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, said: 'They are cheap to hire and unlike Singaporeans, are willing to work long hours and on public holidays to pay back their loans.'
But 24-year-old undergraduate Rebecca Norfor has this piece of advice for employers who seem to downplay the importance of language in good service.
'If I have to tear my hair out to communicate, I will take my business elsewhere.'