Parliament: Less educated more prone to underemployment, improved monitoring needed, says Sylvia Lim

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim noted that underemployment for university graduates is 2.3 per cent, which is lower than the overall rate of 3.3 per cent.
Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim noted that underemployment for university graduates is 2.3 per cent, which is lower than the overall rate of 3.3 per cent.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Official data indicate that the less educated in Singapore tend to be more prone to underemployment, a finding that led Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim to call on the Government to improve its measures of the economic phenomenon, and monitor its effects on society.

Referring to Ministry of Manpower (MOM) figures, she noted that underemployment for university graduates is 2.3 per cent, which is lower than the overall rate of 3.3 per cent. But for those with secondary education, it rises to nearly 4 per cent.

It rises further to 5 per cent for those without secondary education, she said in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 27), the second day of the debate on the Budget statement.

"The rate was derived by a time-based definition of underemployment... persons working part-time and would like to work full-time," said Ms Lim, referring to the underemployed group, comprising people working below capacity. "Even by MOM's measure, the 3.3 per cent translates into nearly 73,000 workers."

Citing the breakdown for those with different education levels, she added: "This may suggest that there may be a class dimension... with the less educated more prone to underemployment."

She asked the Government to continue improving its measures of underemployment, and to monitor its effects on different segments of society.

This state of vulnerability would require monitoring amid the growing upheavals from job disruption, in which workers find themselves having to adapt in the face of automation and transformations in their industries.

Ms Lim also noted that the underemployed face challenges such as being underpaid, feeling insecure about their income and jobs, and lacking finances for daily expenses.

Citing a 2017 study by the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute, she noted it yielded an underemployment rate of 4.3 per cent, which is higher than MOM's 3.3 per cent as at June 2018.

The institute's survey adopted a multi-factor definition of underemployment and looked at those with university degrees and higher qualifications earning below $2,000 a month in a full-time job.

Noting significant efforts by the Government and private sector to respond to job disruption, with initiatives such as Professional Conversion Programmes which help workers move into new roles, she said: "The message that workers need to adapt is clear."

"The question is how well such initiatives are serving to give economic security to workers," she added.

For instance, of the more than 76,000 jobseekers who found employment through the Adapt and Grow Initiative from 2016 to 2018, it would be useful to know if those who switched industries had comparable renumeration or took pay cuts, she said.

It would also be good to know how many could not find new employment through the programme.

Apart from disruptions to employment and the challenges that underemployed workers face, Ms Lim also called for more support for vulnerable workers, like those in the gig economy.


Although the authorities are looking to improve their working conditions, this group could be shown more compassion as well. It is well known that they hardly have employee benefits such as paid leave or bonuses, she added.

With some needing flexibility of time to attend to family issues, and others finding it difficult to take time off regular work to attend to personal matters, Ms Lim suggested that this group be allowed instalment payments for composition fines - to avoid having the case go to court when they have trouble making payments.

"The direction of the Government in economic transformation and workforce reskilling for relevant industries is necessary," she said.

But, she added: "The other pillar that is equally necessary is to have compensatory policies in the form of social safety nets, to cushion citizens who face disruption and are unable to fit into different industries immediately, or perhaps unable to catch up at all."

Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad, in his reply, acknowledged Ms Lim's concerns over vulnerable workers and said more will be discussed during the debate later on each ministry's budget.