Budget 2020: MPs call for greater support for older workers and other vulnerable segments of S’pore’s population in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak

Following Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s Budget 2020 speech last week, Members of Parliament (MPs) on Wednesday (26 Feb) called for greater support for vulnerable segments of Singapore’s population, particularly older workers, amidst the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and global economic uncertainties.

Mr Heng in his speech on 18 Feb introduced measures by the Government to assist workers and companies — particularly in industries most severely hit by the COVID-19 outbreak such as tourism and aviation — in staying afloat in current economic conditions, one of which entails giving mid-career workers in their 40s and 50s S$1,000 in SkillsFuture Credit this year to assist said workers in staying employed.

The credit comprises a top-up of S$500 that will be given to all Singaporeans aged 25 and older, and an additional top-up of S$500 specifically for those aged 40 to 60 as at 31 December this year.

The move was also part of the Government’s target to double the annual job placement of locals in their 40s and 50s to around 5,500 by 2025.

The credit can be utilised for around 200 career transition programmes offered by continuing education and training (CET) centres such as the Workforce Skills Qualifications Certificate in Healthcare Support (Nursing Care) and the National Infocomm Competency Framework-Advanced Certificate in Infocomm Technology (Infrastructure).

While West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay yesterday expressed his support for the SkillsFuture top-ups, he proposed a speedier disbursement of the top-ups and the payouts under the Jobs Support Scheme, as some companies are already experiencing the economic repercussions brought about by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“Any immediate relief is welcomed,” he said, in proposing that the commencement of disbursements be brought forward from the scheduled 31 July date.

Mr Tay also highlighted that many workers — especially freelancers and the self-employed — have asked if the SkillsFuture top-ups can be rolled out earlier than the scheduled start in October.

This is because the said workers would like to “make use of this period of downtime to embark on the relevant training” for the jobs they are seeking to apply for, he said.

Mr Tay also proposed the extension of the validity of the schemes proposed in this year’s Budget in case that the COVID-19 situation worsens or becomes prolonged.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat similarly encouraged the government to “hasten and intensify” efforts to provide “more targeted help” for Singaporean workers in their 40s and 50s, and to incentivise companies’ absorption of more mature workers into professional conversion programmes by 2025.

Companies should build on this demographic of workers, he said, as “their experience in the workforce, along with their excellent work ethics make them exemplary employees to invest resources in”.

Noting that the Budget 2020 has a clear short-term focus on “protecting local jobs, lowering corporate cost structures and household stimuli”, Mr Saktiandi noted that the Jobs and Support Scheme outlined in the Budget will encourage companies to retain their local workforce during this period of uncertainty.

However, Mr Saktiandi highlighted the urgency of bringing forward payouts under the scheme for eligible employees from the scheduled 31 July date. The payouts apply to salaries paid out from October to December last year.

“Can this duration be shortened? Otherwise it is almost half a year from now, which may not come in time for SMEs facing liquidity challenges,” he said.

Mr Saktiandi urged the Government to prioritise making payouts to companies “whose finances are in poor shape”.

He also questioned if an employee will receive payouts under the scheme if they are laid off after the period of October to December last year, for example if they were to be terminated in March this year.

This, said Mr Saktiandi, will not help the Government and companies achieve the primary objective of the scheme, which is employee retention.

A second round of economic stimulus for gig workers and freelancers — ranging from tutors whose class attendance may be slashed, to event planners and emcees — may be required in the event that the effects of COVID-19 last longer than projected, he added.

Raising another point in Malay, Mr Saktiandi also questioned if the Government has thoroughly surveyed the extent of social enterprises needs in terms of retaining its workforce and employing workers from vulnerable segments of society.

He encouraged the Government to work more closely with social enterprises to raise the livelihood of their more vulnerable workers, as social enterprises appear to suffer a greater economic hit during the COVID-19 outbreak compared to other forms of businesses.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Intan Azura, in the same vein, said that companies have to step up support for older workers on top of existing government initiatives to reskill such mature workers.

The work that older workers do must be meaningful and “cannot simply be menial work that younger Singaporeans shun”, she said.

“Taking on the role of mentors, trainers, coaches or supervisors would be more meaningful for older workers, who have a wealth of experience to draw from and impart to younger workers,” said Dr Azura.

Dr Azura encouraged companies to redesign their working experience to suit the needs and expertise of older workers.

Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim, while lauding the measures outlined by the Government in Budget 2020 to protect mid-career workers, pointed out that switching to a different industry may take time, and some of such workers who were retrenched have run into difficulties in landing a new job for months.

“There could be mismatch between openings and applicants. Seeking help from Government agencies also positions the citizen as someone applying for help, which can be a humbling experience. All this can be a tremendous mental and emotional strain on the whole family,” she said.

Consequently, the Workers’ Party chairperson suggested that the Government allows Singaporeans who have met their applicable CPF minimum sums to use their CPF to pay for their education to boost their own reskilling efforts.

An insurance for redundancy, Ms Lim suggested, should also be implemented by the Government, as this will provide an income in the meantime for those who are unemployed or are suddenly subject to redundancy.

“This has been previously debated in the House, with the Government calling it ‘not a crazy idea’ but preferring its current approach of job creation and reskilling … How confident is the Government that its existing schemes will be able to find solutions for everyone who applies?

“Today’s economic climate illustrates how such insurance could provide a stabiliser to workers to soften the cliff edge that they face with job disruption,” she said.

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