May Day: Unions are helping retrenched workers switch sectors, union leaders tell PM

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking with NTUC union leaders at a dialogue on April 18, 2017.
PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking with NTUC union leaders at a dialogue on April 18, 2017. PHOTO: MCI
PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking with NTUC union leaders at a dialogue on April 18, 2017.
PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking with NTUC union leaders at a dialogue on April 18, 2017.PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - As some sectors of the economy go through difficulties, jobs are being lost.

But other sectors are growing, resulting in uneven job prospects.

Amid this uncertainty, union leaders are helping retrenched workers switch sectors, the leaders said at a recent dialogue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

For example, retrenched workers in the battered offshore marine, oil and gas sector are being retrained for jobs in the aerospace sector, which is still hiring.

"Some of the skills from the offshore marine (sector) are still portable," said Ms Sylvia Choo, executive secretary of the Singapore Industrial and Services Union that represents workers in aerospace.

She was among eight National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) union leaders who took part in the April 18 dialogue with PM Lee.

A video and transcript of the closed-door session was released by the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday(April 30), ahead of May Day.

At the session, the union leaders from sectors such as marine, port and financial services shared their worries and hopes concerning job prospects in their sectors.

The most downbeat was the offshore marine, oil and gas sector. It is in a "very painful situation", with about 1,500 workers retrenched from unionised companies in the last two years, said Mr Mah Cheong Fatt, executive secretary of the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union.

"For the first three months (this year), unionised companies retrenched about 200 workers... We are looking at another few hundreds," he added, saying the union has been trying to arrange job fairs to introduce them to other sectors.

Responding, Mr Lee said: "Our first priority should be to help them find another job."

Companies in the aerospace sector are still hiring, noted Ms Choo. One, GE Aviation, recently started a professional conversion programme for mid-career hires and among the 15 participants was a man in his early 50s, she said.

And while jobs in the offshore marine sector are dwindling, the ports sector saw a turnaround. "Things are looking a lot brighter (now) than the last one to two years," said Ms Jessie Yeo, executive secretary of the Singapore Port Workers Union. "Barring unforeseen circumstances, the next six months, we ought to be very busy."

She added that the union is working with PSA to keep up productivity and stay ahead of competition.

"We are always reminded that people are waiting to eat our lunch," she quipped, to which Mr Lee replied: "You must make sure you steal someone else's lunch."

Mr Toh Hock Poh, NTUC's secretary for financial affairs and president of the Metal Industries Workers' Union, recounted his recent visit to a factory in Chengdu, China. It was fully automated and workers are hired not to operate machines but to maintain them. It also has 12,000 workers, its own dormitory, shops, police station and even certification for workers issued by a local institute, showing how far manufacturing has advanced in China, he noted.

Said Mr Lee: "Our firms need to be able to go in this direction. You cannot have such huge firms in Singapore, but you need to be able to be as flexible, as spry and adaptable."

In response to a view from Young NTUC's Zuhaina Ahmad that youth's expectations need to be managed, Mr Lee added this was something that had to be worked on. "You must always want to do better but you cannot always want to hope for the sky and that is the challenge," he said.