In her Budget debate speech yesterday (4 June), Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo highlighted the need for opening new pathways to jobs in Singapore, a move that will be critical apart from defending existing jobs in the country. 

Minister Teo first cited the evolving COVID-19 situation, where Singapore's job market has gone from "experiencing 'persistent showers with pockets of sunshine" to a weather that's "become even more uneven and unpredictable."

"Clearly, some sectors have experienced a downpour. Others are beginning to brighten up. However, unlike cyclical downturns, with COVID-19, there’s much less visibility about the future. It’s hard to tell if a bigger storm is brewing, or how long it may last."

Thus, the need to "gear up for the storm," she said while talking about how support initiatives, such as the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), under the four different Budgets are helping "cushion" the impact of the outbreak on the labour market.

"They are providing much-needed cover to businesses and workers, saving jobs and livelihoods. If we did not have this cover, we would already be drenched in soaring unemployment, as can be seen in some countries. We would be dealing with a very different problem today.

"Instead, we now have a window of opportunity to get organised. This year, we expect the economy to shrink by between 4% to 7%. We must gear up for further job losses, although we won’t know exactly how severe it will be. Uncertainty about the future will also moderate hiring."

Minister Teo then emphasised the need to open up new pathways to jobs for three demographics:

  1. Retrenched and mid-career persons from all sectors;
  2. Fresh graduates from Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and other educational institutions; and
  3. Self-employed persons (SEPs) who want to remain SEPs or to move into regular employment.

These pathways should ideally lead to a job, which may not be an immediate or permanent one given today's context. Further, she added, it should be a path that allows for people to use their time meaningfully, learn something useful, and gain valuable experience. Last, she said: "As much as possible, it should be a path to a better, brighter future."

In his Fortitude Budget speech earlier this month, Minister for Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said the Government has set aside S$2bn for the new SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, which aims to create close to 100,000 opportunities in jobs, traineeships, and skills training. 

Talking about this move yesterday, Minister Teo said while this target is not insurmountable, the National Jobs Council will "have to work very hard" to create these pathways, with multiple partners involved.

Excerpts below:

Engaging employers: Scaling up of the SGUnited Jobs initiative

The SGUnited Jobs initiative will be scaled up to provide more than 40,000 jobs in 2020, with promoting jobs and giving jobseekers access as a top-most priority of this year. 

Minister Teo shared: "Many of the permanent positions in the public sector are a result of hiring plans being brought forward. These include science and engineering roles in agencies like HTX, and positions in early childhood education, healthcare and long-term care."

Additionally, the Government will ramp up the capacity of career conversion programmes, to help jobseekers reskill for new roles in the private sector.

She also added that as businesses transform and workers may be redundant, the Government will work with employers to prepare them for "redeployment rather than unemployment."

Supporting jobskeers: Expanding ground presence, including all HDB towns

On top of the five career centres islandwide, and apart from partnerships with NTUC’s e2i, the social service offices, community development councils, and self-help groups, the Government is aiming to build up a presence in all HDB towns, through satellite career centres. This will be part of efforts to get closer to jobseekers, Minister Teo said.

She also emphasised on the existing virtual options in place, such as, a series of thematic virtual career fairs, and more.

Partnering organisations: Opening up pathways in respective sectors

Aside from the above, to extend its reach to more workers and employers, Minister Teo noted that the Government has been working closely with the tripartite partners, "With encouraging results."

For instance, she said: "When air travel came to a standstill due to COVID-19, NTUC played an instrumental role in kick-starting job redesign projects. Close to 4,000 workers in the Air Transport sector will be reskilled for new roles."

In additon, e2i has been working through the NTUC Job Security Council to push out short-term and long-term job opportunities for retrenched workers.

Minister Teo stated: "We will reach out and partner more trade associations and chambers to open up the pathways in their respective sectors. These partnerships can include SEP associations like for sports coaches and media freelancers."

Parliamentary replies on employment issues, work injury claims, and more

In similar news, Minister Teo, along with Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, released a series of replies to parliamentary questions yesterday.

These included responses on fair retrenchment and dismissals, CPF contributions, work-from-home injury claims, and more, summarised below:

CPF contributions
(Reply by Minister Josephine Teo)

On this topic, MP Seah Kian Peng asked if the Government will consider a temporary reduction of CPF contributions, until after the economy has recovered.

To this, Minister Teo said if the objective was to reduce the cost burden on employers, the JSS has been able to do so, "with fewer drawbacks."

"For example, those who depend on CPF contributions to meet housing and healthcare needs can continue to do so. Singaporeans’ ability to save for retirement is also not eroded. As an added advantage, JSS is able to target stronger support to sectors that are more affected by the COVID-19 outbreak."

The National Wage Council Guidelines have also provided suggestions for other non-wage cost reduction measures for employers, she added. 

"Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor and assess the situation, and consider whether other measures, including adjusting CPF contribution rates, may be necessary in the future."

Fair retrenchment and dismissals
(Reply by Minister Josephine Teo)

Members of Parliament (MP) Patrick Tay and Joan Pereira raised questions on the fair treatment of workers when they are retrenched, terminated, or have had their wages reduced. "Disguised retrenchments" was also a concern highlighted, by MP Tay.

In response, Minister Teo emphasised that the Government has been clear that retrenchment should always be a last resort for employers, and that there are "clear guidelines" in place in terms of "disguised retrenchments." Even in this period, she said, an employee is presumed to have been retrenched if the employer cannot show a plan to fill the vacancy any time soon.

"If the retrenchment benefit is spelt out in the employment contract or collective agreement, the employer has a clear obligation to pay. He cannot side-step it by calling the retrenchment something else. If a company is found to have disguised their retrenchments, MOM can and will consider withdrawing Government support like JSS and suspending their work pass privileges."

She added: "To ensure fair and responsible implementation of tripartite advisories, MOM has required employers to submit notifications of cost-saving measures they intend to undertake. Through these notifications, MOM and TAFEP identify companies for further engagement, for example, if their planned wage cuts appear excessive."

Fair recruitment
(Reply by Minister Josephine Teo)

MP Saktiandi Supaat raised concerns about jobseekers having to declare their last drawn salary or to share previous payslips, its impact on employability and salary packages, and whether such a practice should be stopped so applicants can move up the wage scale.

Minister Teo replied that there is no rule that jobseekers must comply, and employers cannot insist on it. She then added that a practical approach should be taken on whether employers can ask for such information. 

"The last drawn salary is a relevant input to employers seeking to gauge a candidate’s seniority or to make an appropriate job offer. However, if employers use last drawn salary to screen applicants, they risk losing out on good candidates who are prepared to adjust their salary expectations, especially in today’s context.

"It is similarly unwise for employers to overlook the longer track record of the applicant, and make an offer based solely on the last-drawn salary especially if the last-held position was an interim one. If a jobseeker chooses to provide salary information, employers should use it carefully."

Fair treatment of foreign workers
(Reply by Minister Josephine Teo)

MP Anthea brought up a series of questions on the fair treatment of foreign workers, including measures for fair dismissal if a work permit holder has been tested positive for COVID-19, and after the circuit breaker period; course of action if they have lost the jobs or have salaries unpaid; and more.

Minister Teo replied: "The general principles of fair treatment apply equally to all our workers, whether local or foreign. Likewise, when companies have to reduce wages in order to save jobs, both local and foreign employees should be considered.

"In the unfortunate event of retrenchment, it would certainly not be right to expect employers to favour their foreign employees compared to local workers." She stressed that the Government "cannot also be expected to provide the same degree of fiscal support to employers to retain their foreign employees compared to their local employees," adding that this is "not a question of fairness, but reasonableness."

Work-from-home injuries and work injury claims
(Replies by Minister Josephine Teo and Minister Zaqy Mohamad)

Separately, MP Patrick Tay asked about the annual number of work injury claims reported to the Ministry, up til 31 May 2020 in cases a work injury occurred while employees worked remotely.

In response, Minister Teo said the Ministry had started tracking work injuries at home since the start of the Circuit Breaker period, from 7 April. Since then, two work injuries were reported to have occurred at home while on remote working arrangements, and the claims are currently being examined.

"As in all work injury claims, it is necessary to determine if the injuries arose out of and in the course of work. Employees with work injuries, including injury sustained while working from home, are eligible for compensation under the Work Injury Compensation Act."

MP Tay also asked the Ministry for "greater clarity on the treatment of work injury compensation including scope, coverage, insurance and premium when one's home is the workplace."

To this, Minister Zaqy said work-from-home arrangements do not change an employer's responsibility for work injury compensation. "The key is to ascertain that the injury arose while doing work at home, and not while performing non-work activities at home. This is a fact-finding exercise that is no different from all other WIC claims.

"Work Injury Compensation (WIC) insurance is purchased by employers, and will cover employees who were injured out of and in the course of doing work at home." 

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