SINGAPORE - Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has urged employers to do their part to support their workers, both local and foreign, even as they make many adjustments to meet the country's decision to close most workplaces for four weeks.
She called on them to pass on the latest government support to their employees, and communicate clearly to them on work and pay arrangements for the next few weeks, she said in Parliament on Monday (April 6).
Earlier on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced an enhanced Job Support Scheme that will give businesses in all sectors a wage subsidy of 75 per cent of local employees' gross monthly pay for the first $4,600 of wages paid in April (2020) to the workers.
This is an increase from the previous enhanced level of 25 per cent for all firms and higher levels of 50 per cent for those in food services and 75 per cent for those in tourism and aviation.
The month-long temporary closure of most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors, takes effect on Tuesday (April 7) as part of circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Said Mrs Teo: "Many are asking - how will we get through this one month? What will happen after that? No one can say for sure. But one thing we can be sure of is that we will get through this together. We will stand in solidarity with workers as well as businesses."
The minister, who was speaking during the debate on the Resilience and Solidarity Budgets, said employers in non-essential businesses should continue to give appropriate pay to their workers who can telecommute, instead of treating the period as no-pay leave.
The Jobs Support Scheme should help to fund most of the wages of those unable to work remotely.
On how her ministry will help companies enable their workers to work from home, the minister said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Low Yen Ling will give more information later.
Mrs Teo was responding to Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), who voiced concerns about workers without the resources to work from home, like having to share a laptop among several family members.
She reiterated her ministry's priority in protecting workers' livelihoods and gave more details on several schemes previously announced.
First, the SGUnited Traineeships scheme to help fresh graduates from the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and other educational institutions will start from June 1 and be managed by the Singapore Business Federation.
TRAINEE SCHEME FOR FRESH GRADUATES
For companies which take them on as trainees, the Government will fund 80 per cent of the stipend for trainees, with the company paying 20 per cent. Although the stipend may not match the usual starting salary of graduates, it is still better to build up some work experience on their resume than to have a gaping hole, she said.
"This is a very tough time to be entering the job market and I recognise their worries as well as those of their parents...we must find a way to help these young Singaporeans get started in their careers and not let Covid-19 derail them," she added.
The scheme, announced by Mr Heng on March 26 in the Resilience Budget, aims to support up to 8,000 traineeships this year. So far, more than 100 companies, such as ST Logistics, Surbana Jurong, Micron, Q&M Dental and Commonwealth Capital have committed to 1,500 positions, Mrs Teo said.
As for the SGUnited Jobs initiative to create about 10,000 jobs in the next one year, she said the first virtual career fair, which is ongoing until April 12, has 5,800 vacancies available and 5,500 applicants so far.
Workforce Singapore's Careers Connect and the National Trades Union Congress' Employment and Employability Institute centres will continue to provide face-to-face service to job seekers who are in urgent need, she added.
She mentioned the broadened criteria announced by Mr Heng for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme, which now automatically includes self-employed people who earn a small income as employees - up to $2,300 a month, which is the current Workfare income ceiling - instead of excluding such people.
The annual property value threshold for the scheme will be raised from $13,000 to $21,000, which will include most condominiums outside prime areas.
Mrs Teo also spoke about support for businesses in maintaining cashflow during the circuit breaker period.
The Manpower Ministry had earlier announced that small and medium-sized enterprises will have three additional months to make foreign worker levy payments, which are for employees on work permits or S Passes.
But under the Solidarity Budget, the levies due in April will be waived, and employers will further receive a levy rebate of $750 for each work permit or S Pass holder, to be paid out as early as April 21.
In view of these measures, employers of foreigners on work permits and S Passes will no longer receive the daily allowance for quarantined workers, she said. But she stressed workers will still get paid as the period counts as paid hospitalisation leave.
She noted that some might ask why the Government is providing support for firms which hire foreign workers. Her reply was that the circuit breaker will significantly impact all businesses with contractual and financial obligations, regardless of whether they employ locals or foreigners.
"This does not change the fact that supporting local workers remains our top priority. The schemes I mentioned fully demonstrate this commitment," she said.
"But at such a time, we must stand united with all workers - every worker matters - and not draw too many lines. Sharing pain should also mean sharing the relief."
She asked firms to use the levy rebate wisely to retain their essential workforce so that they can restart or scale up as soon as possible.
"Please demonstrate our solidarity with all our workers, both local and foreign, remember how they have helped you and your businesses in good times, do not forsake them in bad times. And take care especially of the vulnerable groups," she said.
The effects of Covid-19 will likely last longer than the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009, when the economy saw a V-shaped recover, she said, calling it more "cruel" than the financial crisis and the Sars outbreak in 2003.
Still, Mrs Teo said she is hopeful "because of the amazing spirit I see in our people". She highlighted those who make funny videos to cheer others up, or rewrite pop hits, or chip in to help make hand sanitisers and sew masks.
Some businesses are also going the extra mile to care for customers and workers, while many workers have taken on a lot more work to help their bosses or accepted pay cuts, she said.
"If there's one thing I can say with confidence, it is this: Our economy may take a huge hit. So might jobs. But not our spirit. And never our solidarity.
"We are Singapore, we will overcome and we will emerge stronger."