By Howard Lee
May Day, or International Workers’ Day, is a celebration of the working class and is usually taken the world over as a public holiday. But you might be forgiven if you do not find it a day conducive for rest.
Leading up to today, our Ministers have been rolling out messages, giving an update of sorts about economic restructuring and the role we are to play in it.
Lim Swee Say, Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, reminded us in his May Day message that the labour market is tight and will continue to tighten until 2020 and possibly 2030. This was possibly made in reference to the government’s efforts to reduce the rate of foreign workers entering Singapore.
Mr Lim noted that this tightening was key to the restructuring of the Singapore economy, and must take place alongside skills training. He was also of the view that “The best way to attract more good jobs, create more good careers and sustain good wage growth for our workers is for us to value our jobs more and take greater pride in what we do.”
He was not the only one to espouse skills training. Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister For Manpower, in his May Day message also spoke about “embarking on a major review of the Continuing Education and Training system to support workers in upgrading their skills and lifelong learning, so that they can seize the new job opportunities that restructuring will bring.”
Moreover, “The Government is also fully committed to helping companies transform their existing business models, so that they can create better job opportunities for our workers. We will continue to strongly encourage businesses to innovate and strive for productivity improvements and in turn, raise the wages of our workers. “ Mr Tan made reference to the Inclusive Growth Programme and Productivity and Innovation Credit as the government initiatives that can help businesses.
These statements do sound very positive and comes with the caveat that if we work hard and align ourselves with this emerging, restructuring-in-progress economy, we would be better off. But there are some underlying issues that need to be addressed.
The tighter labour market assumes that, as long as we are not picky about the jobs available, we will surely prosper, or at least be employed. The logic suggested by the tighter labour market is that, with fewer foreigners, employers would have no choice but to hire locals.
However, that is not necessarily true. The Straits Times reported last month that more workers are being laid off, and professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) were most at risk of losing their jobs. In fact, jobs lost by PMETs made up 56% of those who lost their jobs last year.
The Straits Times report cited “experts” who said that this lay off of PMETs was due to “economic restructuring moving up the value chain”. If it were so, might it then suggest that employers are not training their PMETs to readjust to fit these roles? Why then fire and hire, in the hope of getting someone who can be “restructured” to the new requirements?
It might be reasonable to believe that these lay off’s are less about the cyclical replacement of skills. It might also suggest that the tight labour market is not really doing much for our PMETs. If anything, it would appear that it is not so much the reduction of the foreign labour pool, but the type of foreign labour reduced that needs attention.
When the government decided to reduce the number of work passes, the focus was very much on skilled and unskilled labour, particularly in the services sector. While this might have a direct impact on the number of foreigners entering Singapore, the only likely benefit would be a reduced strain on national infrastructure. There is no indication that the number of employment passes, with which foreign PMETs enter Singapore, issued will be reduced.
Ironically, Mr Lim’s painted “future” in his speech might not be too far from today’s reality:
“Imagine a future where rank-and-file workers are replaced by robots; Professionals, Managers and Executives become underemployed; mature workers cannot fit into workplaces that are not age-friendly; working parents, especially working mothers, face worsening work-life balance due to inflexible work arrangements; and low-wage workers are stuck in a world of cheap sourcing.”
Indeed, David Chan, director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, Singapore Management University wrote about the need for social mobility to be improved, not just through the creation of jobs and education, but a combined effort that includes moving away from such “cheap sourcing” described by Mr Lim.
“Raising social mobility also means making sure there are good jobs for locals – both graduates and non-graduates – with good career and wage prospects. This requires a labour market where salaries are not easily depressed by the easy availability of foreigners to levels that only foreigners find acceptable,” Mr Chan penned in an article for the Straits Times last year.
This suggests that there is a need to move beyond looking at employment in isolated terms of how many get hired or retrenched, but also the entire employment process, to ensure that justice is done to the workforce, be they locals or foreigners.
Already, we have unhappy news that errant employers are owing their employees about S$420 million in Central Provident Fund contributions. CPF remains the very lifeblood of a citizen’s retirement plans, and this speaks volumes about how employers are valuing employees, regardless of what our Ministers said about the tighter labour market.
And despite efforts to ensure that employers consider Singaporeans first for jobs through the Fair Consideration Framework, we are still reading about instances where employers choose to hire foreigners over Singaporeans.
All this must change, if we want Singaporean workers to feel valued and assured.
A holistic approach is needed if the government is keen to secure Singapore’s future employability. Creating jobs, restricting the foreign manpower pool and encouraging skills upgrading are only one aspect of the solution, good moves as they might be.
Steps must be taken – legislated and enforced, if need be – to reduce the reliance on foreign labour at all strata of the workforce; ensure that employers play fair by our workers; and create a work environment that is less about a competition for survival, but more about nurturing the Singapore workforce for the future.
That, actually, is the true economic restructuring we need.
All images from The Straits Times.