November 23, 2008 Sunday

Fewer Expats

Moving firms say more are seeking their services to relocate out of S'pore

By Gracia Chiang

Call it down and out of Singapore.

Amid leaner economic times, companies here are cutting costs and one option is to reduce the number of expatriates.

At least one employer - Fortis Bank - has asked some of its foreign staff to pack their bags, and the recent job cuts announced by financial giant Citigroup could see more departures.

Indeed, several moving companies tell The Sunday Times that their business has been boosted in recent months.

Geometra Worldwide Movers now sees at least 15 expatriates relocating per month compared to only two or three before September, said its operations manager Steven Raj.

Most of his clients are families heading back to the United States while others are returning to Europe and Australia.

Ms Angelika Si Hoe, director of moving broker Cross Roads, has seen a 20 per cent jump in the number of clients compared to the previous year - even though the year has not ended.

At least 10 per cent of these cases stem from layoffs in the last two months.

'Some are quite distressed when they come to me because they just lost their job and don't know where they are going to. It's very difficult for them as many have children,' she said.

White-collar expatriates typically hold employment passes. According to the Ministry of Manpower, there are 99,000 employment pass holders as of December last year.

Another indication of expatriates moving out is reflected in the housing market.

Mr Eugene Lim, assistant vice-president at property firm ERA, said human resource managers are inquiring about the possibility of breaking rental leases.

'They are exploring options and doing their sums. This is an indication that they want to get out,' he noted.

As most expatriate rental leases last two years, companies have been asking landlords if they are open to the idea of finding a replacement tenant for the remaining period, he added.

These inquiries, which currently number fewer than 100, are mainly from the finance sectors.

Some property agents have also observed that expatriates who are staying put are increasingly price-conscious. They are moving from the central areas to the suburbs where rentals are cheaper by at least 30 per cent.

On the education front, a check with four international schools - United World College of South East Asia, Tanglin Trust School, Singapore American School and Canadian International School - shows there has not been a significant impact on withdrawals and waiting lists yet.

They said the effect will be more clearly seen next year.

'Many expatriate schools start around August so we would be able to see if there's any trend only in mid-2009,' said Singapore American School communications director Beth Gribbon.

The same tale is told by international business networks here. Said Australian Chamber of Commerce executive director Annette Tilbrook: 'It is very early days and there is no obvious difference. We always have a reasonable outflux of expats at this time of the year. What we don't know is whether there will be replacements next year.'

An Australian expatriate, who wanted to be known only as David, is one of those leaving.

The 45-year-old came three years ago to start his logistics firm but is returning to Melbourne with his wife and daughter because business has dived by 60 per cent in recent months.

'I don't think anyone saw this coming. First, the petrol crisis, then this. This was the straw that broke the camel's back,' he said.

A regional sales director at an American technology firm has also been asked to go because of cost-cutting. The 34-year-old and his wife plan to spend the next few months backpacking before returning to the US.

'The job market we're going back to in the US is pretty bad so we're not intending to return immediately,' he said.

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