Economic uncertainty puts squeeze on job market

Employment growth in 2016 at 13-year low; experts expect hiring to be muted this year

As Singapore's economic growth slowed, employment growth last year hit a 13-year low.

The unemployment rate for residents and the number of layoffs also hit six- and seven-year highs, respectively, preliminary data on the labour market showed yesterday.

Meanwhile, median income growth for Singaporeans in full- time jobs also slowed to 1.3 per cent in real terms, down from 7 per cent the previous year.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said: "The weaker and more uncertain economic environment in 2016 has presented a challenge to sustain growth and stem a rise in unemployment."

Observers expect hiring to be muted this year, amid economic restructuring and uncertainty.

The resident workforce grew by an estimated 10,700 people last year,up 0.5 per cent from the year before. They entered mainly service jobs, such as in community and social services, and transportation and storage.

On the other hand, the foreign workforce - not counting domestic workers - contracted by 2,500 people, or 0.2 per cent, the first year it has fallen since 2009. The decline was mostly in the construction and marine sectors.

Overall, the workforce grew by 16,400, or 0.4 per cent, including domestic workers, the slowest growth since 2003, when employment fell by 12,900.

The moderation took place amid slower economic growth, a slowdown in local labour force growth and continued tightening of the foreign worker policy, MOM said.

Total employment was 3,672,600 last month. With the year-end festivities, employment grew by 1,900 in the fourth quarter, after it fell by 2,700 in the third quarter.

DBS economist Irvin Seah saw this as a glimmer of hope that should continue this year, on the back of stronger manufacturing output over the last two months of last year. "But the impact needs to spill over to the service sector, which is the main contributor to employment, for us to see a sustained lift to the labour market," he said.

While still low, the annual average unemployment rate for Singaporeans and permanent residents last year rose to its highest level since 2010, at 3 per cent, compared with 2.8 per cent the year before.

More people were laid off last year compared with the year before. A total of 19,000 people were retrenched or had their contracts aborted, the highest number since the global financial crisis in 2009. Retrenchments alone hit 16,600.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said on Facebook that while redundancy may be inevitable in certain circumstances, "we urge companies to carry it out in a fair, responsible and sensitive way".

Unions, employers and the Government must work together to help businesses and workers stay relevant, he said. "(It is) important to help our workers stay agile to embrace change and disruption."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'Economic uncertainty puts squeeze on job market'. Print Edition | Subscribe