The Straits Times

Creative labour redeployment can work

The swift redeployment of workers, from sectors with vastly reduced demand for their services, is a creative development in Singapore's labour scene in the midst of the pandemic. Taxi drivers and private-hire drivers belong to a vulnerable group. Their earnings have reportedly dropped by as much as 60 per cent since the coronavirus outbreak hit Singapore in January, leading to many of them giving up driving. It is welcome, therefore, that taxi drivers affected by the crisis can drive buses or be redeployed as ambassadors to help reduce crowding on trains. ComfortDelGro and SMRT have issued statements inviting cabbies and private-hire drivers to switch to driving buses. Separately, temporary transport ambassadors, as they are called, could help commuters to keep safe distances and help to sanitise train cabins, seats and poles more frequently. Since the public transport sector remains essential to the economy, it makes good sense to transfer excess manpower to the operation of buses and the maintenance of public hygiene on trains.

A similarly inventive exercise involves redeploying Singapore Airlines (SIA) cabin crew to care for patients at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Flight stewardesses and stewards, grounded temporarily because of cancelled flights, will be care ambassadors at the public hospital. Putting workers from an unrelated profession in a hospital environment during the outbreak understandably raises concerns about their medical welfare along with their capacity to care for patients. However, the exercise does not go beyond assigning them to low-risk wards and making them support hospital care teams by carrying out basic caregiving procedures, nutritional care and patient service management. Patients in these general wards are treated for problems such as chronic diseases, heart disorders and acute surgical conditions. The care ambassadors will have no direct contact with Covid-19 patients. Also, the patients whom they serve will not need to worry because the ambassadors receive training so that they can transfer their service skills to a hospital setting. Commendably, the SIA Group has committed itself to providing numerous care ambassadors to various hospitals, depending on each hospital's needs.

These initiatives by many attest to the flexibility of the larger economy at a time when the coronavirus crisis is hurting some sectors badly. No matter how desperate the situation might appear to those in services affected the most, the crisis has created new sources of demand. Healthcare will need manpower, and those who join it for even a short period enable full-time professionals to concentrate on acute cases. Looking beyond the outbreak, the reallocation exercise offers insights into how workers can keep themselves employable in an age of economic disruption inaugurated by structural technological change.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2020, with the headline 'Creative labour redeployment can work'. Subscribe