SINGAPORE - While saving lives is the Government's topmost priority amid the Covid-19 pandemic, saving jobs comes next, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday (April 7).
This is because when people are out of a job, there is a major cost to individual lives and to society, he told Parliament.
Individuals lose the chance to gain experience, while companies which lay off workers become less competitive. If many firms fail, the supply chain will be disrupted, which will drag down the broader economy, said Mr Heng in his speech rounding up the debate on the Supplementary Budget.
This is why the SGUnited Traineeships scheme will be launched to help first time job-seekers and fresh graduates get work experience during this period, he said.
At the same time, there is high wage support through the Jobs Support Scheme, which was introduced in the Budget in February and enhanced in the supplementary budget in March and again on Monday (April 6).
The scheme, which subsidises nine months of wages of all local employees - by 75 per cent for the month of April and at least 25 per cent in other months - provides cashflow aid to firms.
"However, the (scheme) will fail if firms take a short-term view, pocket the payouts in one month, and retrench their workers the next month," said Mr Heng.
"I urge businesses to take a longer-term view - retain and upskill your workers to accelerate your transformation for the future economy."
Employers who reduce wages or put staff on no-pay leave will have their payouts reduced accordingly, while those who had done so before the announcements can raise wages or bring employees back onto the payroll if they want to receive the payouts, said Mr Heng in response to Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) and Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC).
Employers will receive the payouts for the relevant months as long as they pay their employees' wages and make the necessary contributions to the Central Provident Fund, he said, adding that the Government will continue to monitor the situation closely.
Firms that lay off workers may not be able to seize opportunities when the economy recovers as they will have to start from scratch in re-hiring and re-training new staff, he said.
He also cited the National Wages Council recommendations released on March 30 which called for firms to to reduce non-wage costs and tap Government support, before resorting to retrenchments.
National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and other union leaders have also stressed that firms should cut costs to save jobs and not cut jobs to save costs, he added.
Mr Heng noted that some MPs had asked during the debate on Monday and Tuesday if more could be done. Nominated MP Yip Pin Xiu, a paralympian, had asked for more help for small businesses in the sports sector.
"Rest assured that we will continue to monitor the situation closely, and do more as and when we need to, to save jobs," said Mr Heng.
He also assured workers that support is in place to help them be resilient when confronted with challenges.
"The best form of support is continued employment, both in the immediate and long-term. But if your livelihood is affected, we are here to help you through difficult times, to bounce back when conditions improve," he said.
New measures announced this year provide more support for workers to train and upskill, and also to find a new job in emerging areas, he said. There is also strong social support through new schemes like the Temporary Relief Fund and the Covid-19 Support Grant, as well as through existing schemes like ComCare.
Freelancers can also tap the Self-Employed Person (SEP) Income Relief Scheme for cash assistance of $9,000, as well as the SEP Training Support Scheme for an hourly training allowance when they attend eligible courses.
As for low-wage workers, a combination of policies is needed to "shift the entire landscape of support", said Mr Heng, listing the progressive wage model and Workfare schemes as examples that have raised wages while keeping unemployment low.
He noted that several MPs, including Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang), Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) and Nominated MP Walter Theseira, had asked the Government to relook its approach on support for low-wage workers, especially during this period. And labour MPs have also consistently championed the needs of this group of workers.
"Every worker is assured that he can earn more wages through skills upgrading," he said, adding that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices ensures they are treated fairly.
Finally, firms are given resources to re-engineer their business operations, digitalise, retrain workers and even temporarily redeploy them during downtime, said Mr Heng.
He cited Sats, Changi Airport's biggest ground handling and airline catering operator, which is sending up to 500 workers to support the pandemic response, under the SGUnited Jobs initiative.
Among them are Ms Neo Xin Yin, a customer service agent, who will become an SG Clean Ambassador with the National Environment Agency, and Mr Yazid Izkhairol, a duty manager who will be a public hospital care concierge.
The firm is also developing ways to improve its operations. It is trying out at Changi Airfreight Terminal an artificial intelligence-powered system to scan the dimensions and contents of incoming cargo and pack them in the optimal arrangement using a robotic arm.
Mr Heng said the aviation sector, which has strategic value to Singapore’s position as a global-Asia node, is one of worst-hit sectors in the pandemic.
"Despite being hit so hard, it has found strength, retained staff, and pressed on with training and innovation, and volunteered to help others. This is resilience in action," he said.