COVID-19 SPECIAL

Where have all the good jobs gone?

Beyond creating good jobs to replace those lost during the pandemic, now is the time for a powerful job creation platform that promotes new industries and addresses underemployment too

The coronavirus does not just kill people. It's a jobs killer.

According to the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO), in the first half of this year, 435 million full-time jobs have been lost globally, due to lockdowns and other coronavirus containment measures.

A further 1.6 billion jobs in the informal economy have been significantly impacted. That accounts for almost half of all jobs globally.

The virus has created the worst global jobs crisis in recent memory.

Of particular concern are the jobs in the informal sector, or the gig economy.

According to the ILO, jobs in this sector are characterised by a lack of basic protection, including social protection coverage. "They often have poor access to healthcare services and have no income replacement in case of sickness or lockdown. Many of them have no possibility to work remotely from home. Staying home means losing their jobs, and without wages, they cannot eat," it describes.

I have written previously about the perils of the gig economy, especially the insecurity and indignities workers in this sector are subject to. I appealed to gig workers to beware of what they are signing up for.

But, increasingly, it appears that workers may not have better options. As it stands globally, for every three people in the informal economy, there are only two hired in the formal economy.

According to ILO's director-general Guy Ryder: "For millions of working people, it is becoming increasingly difficult to build better lives through work."

The ILO's diagnosis of the problem is that there is a major shortage of good jobs which pay well. It defines a good job as one that provides "adequacy of wages or self-employment earnings, the right to job security and a safe and healthy workplace, access to social protection, the opportunity to voice one's views".

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to discuss the shortage of good jobs with American-British economics professor David Blanchflower from Dartmouth University, who recently authored Not Working: Where Have All The Good Jobs Gone?, a best-selling book.

Prof Blanchflower, who sat on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee during the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009, believes that the first issue to be concerned about is unemployment statistics.

He argues that the low relative unemployment rate before the coronavirus crisis in the United States and Britain understated the number of people who want a good job.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

This understatement is due to people leaving the labour force and unemployed people being reluctant to respond to labour market surveys, which is the primary method of gathering labour market statistics, he believes.

His point is that the pre-virus US unemployment rate was low, at 3.6 per cent, which suggested "the labour market ought to be humming and decent-paying jobs should be aplenty, but they are not".

This has parallels in Singapore, which had a pre-virus citizen unemployment rate of 3.77 per cent, yet the ground sentiment seems to be that decent-paying jobs are hard to come by.

Besides unemployment, another thorny issue Prof Blanchflower raises is underemployment, which means "workers are being pushed into part-time jobs when they would like full-time jobs". This group, he says, is significantly larger than the unemployment group.

He warns that when good jobs are scarce, people start to look for scapegoats and immigration is an easy target. He adds: "There is a widely expressed fear that immigrants are taking the high-paying jobs away as they are prepared to do them more cheaply than would indigenous workers."

Locally, Professor Tommy Koh warned at the Singapore Bicentennial Conference in September last year: "We should not abandon the displaced workers because we don't want more and more Singaporeans to become Grab drivers or, worse, to join the ranks of the angry voters."

He added: "Remember this: It was the angry voters who helped to elect President (Donald) Trump in the United States. It was the angry voters in the United Kingdom who voted to leave the European Union."

Last year's incident in a Whampoa condominium, resulting from a JPMorgan Chase expatriate employee facing off with a Singaporean security guard on parking privileges for his guests, is an example of how easily the embers of discontent can be fanned into flames.

Some 50,000 people signed an online petition for financial institution JPMorgan to fire the employee from his "good" Singapore job. The public's comments accompanying the petition illustrate how immigration is an easy target when good jobs are scarce.

What is the antidote to people looking for scapegoats?

Prof Blanchflower quotes Mr George Gallup, American pioneer of survey sampling techniques and inventor of the Gallup opinion poll: "Creating as many good jobs as possible should be the No. 1 priority for business and government leaders everywhere."

Creating good jobs will not be easy, given company cessations, bankruptcy and job losses that will inevitably accompany a coronavirus-driven recession in Singapore.

Some of our young people have already lost hope in the traditional formula of studying hard, getting a good job, finding a partner, getting a Housing Board flat and starting to chase the five Cs (cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club membership).

Last year, The Straits Times did a feature on well-educated youth who are Neets (not in employment, education or training), with an estimate that they make up 4.1 per cent of the resident youth population.

While these young people are well-educated, they spend their time at home, sleeping and gaming, outside of the labour force.

There is a real possibility the current crisis will add to the number of Neets due to the uncertain economic situation, exacerbated by the crisis.

It is not just youth who will be affected by the coronavirus depression. All of us have personal experience or know of a friend, family member or acquaintance whose employability has been affected by the crisis.

I applaud the Government for the significant attempts to save jobs in Singapore.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's commitment that his top priority to help workers who are currently employed, stay employed, has been a balm for many during this difficult time.

However, as we seek to adjust to the new post-pandemic normal, the focus cannot just be about saving jobs.

We face a renewed urgency to create a volume of good jobs that far exceeds those the virus has taken. In the immortal words of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird: "The best defense... (is) a spirited offense."

In that vein, I would suggest that what is needed is an all-out bid to address the twin challenges of unemployment and underemployment in Singapore.

The time is ripe to create a powerful job creation platform that captures the public imagination. Such a platform should contain a simple convincing plan to promote new industries, encourage companies to hire and invest in people, and create enough good jobs for all Singaporeans.

If the plan is successful, it would ensure that every Singaporean has access to a good job, if he or she wants it.

It should be easy to communicate and the people should know how exactly they fit into the overall strategy.

At the end of the day, people want to know that their economic future is bright, and that their children will have better jobs tomorrow than they have today.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said Prof Blanchflower is a former World Bank chief economist. This has been corrected. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 14, 2020, with the headline 'Where have all the good jobs gone?'. Print Edition | Subscribe