Call to ensure workers can access new opportunities

On the panel yesterday were (from left): Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower and Home Affairs; Mr Joseph C. Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group; Mr Michael Milken, chairman of Milken
On the panel yesterday were (from left): Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower and Home Affairs; Mr Joseph C. Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group; Mr Michael Milken, chairman of Milken Institute; Mr Igor Tulchinsky, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of WorldQuant; and Mr Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation.PHOTO: MILKEN INSTITUTE

Businesses, govts can make sure staff are able to take up jobs created from automation, digitalisation: Josephine Teo

The future of labour cannot involve protecting workers against disruption at the expense of new business models, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo said yesterday.

Businesses and governments must work together to allay workers' concerns and make sure that employees are able to take up new jobs that will be created from automation and digitalisation.

"The catch is that the prospect of a net addition of jobs is comforting only to the extent that the workers involved can find ways to access the new opportunities," she said.

"Otherwise, it is a very frightening thought, and you could have a very unhappy situation where unemployment is rising and yet, at the same time, businesses are growing below potential."

Mrs Teo, who is also Second Minister for Manpower and Home Affairs, was speaking at the conclusion of the Milken Institute Asia Summit, as part of a panel on preparing for jobs some two decades down the road.

She noted that, as positions are added in nascent fields such as cyber security, workers do not look set to be replaced entirely - "although there's no doubt that advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will increase the prevalence of workplace automation".

Filipino conglomerate Ayala Corporation chairman and chief executive Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, another panellist, agreed that workers are seeing new job opportunities arise.

ADDRESS FEARS, FIND SOLUTIONS

The catch is that the prospect of a net addition of jobs is comforting only to the extent that the workers involved can find ways to access the new opportunities. Otherwise, it is a very frightening thought, and you could have a very unhappy situation where unemployment is rising and yet, at the same time, businesses are growing below potential.

MINISTER IN THE PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE JOSEPHINE TEO, on making sure that employees are equipped for new jobs

"People are used to seeing the Philippines as a call centre. It's already evolved into a much more complex space," he said.

"What you've had is a mirror image of our service industry abroad... because of the shift that's taken place in telecommunications and bringing those jobs back to their home country."

But in the meantime, industry transformation could present a difficult balancing act.

Mrs Teo cited the experience of taxi drivers who may have come under pressure as ride-hailing apps take off.

"This is where governments potentially could get caught," she said.

"On the one hand, you have people who are affected by the change, and they say, 'We want protection from the change'.

"And yet, at the same time, you know that unless you are able to allow the businesses to develop new models of operating that are more efficient and that will exploit their potential to the fullest, you don't actually have the opportunity to create better-paying jobs for the people, your citizens."

Under such conditions, said Mrs Teo, governments have a "huge responsibility to their citizens", to help them adapt to their change.

This could involve making sure that skills training and "social security" can adequately meet the needs of workers. It could also involve building "a sense of solidarity" between industry and labour, so that both are invested in change and feel that they share a stake in the future.

"The only way in which we can make forward movement is if both businesses and people are prepared to say that we will win together because we're in this together," said Mrs Teo.

SEE OPINION How Singapore is preparing for jobs of the future

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Call to ensure workers can access new opportunities'. Print Edition | Subscribe