Budget debate: MPs seek more support, protection for workers as economy restructures

Stronger protections and support for local workers will help them navigate shifts taking place in the wake of Covid-19. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - As Singapore gears up to restructure its economy amid an uncertain global environment, MPs on Wednesday (Feb 24) called for stronger protections and support for local workers to help them navigate shifts taking place in the wake of Covid-19.

The first day of debate on the $107 billion Budget saw 30 MPs speak, including nine from the labour movement who touched on expanding a wage ladder to lift wages of the lowest-paid, giving gig workers greater say, and having anti-discrimination laws to give workers a fairer playing field, among other things.

Members welcomed the Budget's emphasis that growth had to be sustainable and inclusive, but sought stronger safety nets for vulnerable groups and older workers.

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh was first to speak in the debate, having been appointed Leader of the Opposition following last July's general election.

He said he supported the Budget, which was unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat last Tuesday.

But Mr Singh called for more transparency and accountability on Government expenditure and the efficacy of Budget initiatives, given Singapore's tight fiscal environment after having to dip into its reserves for the second year running to battle the Covid-19 crisis.

He called for an independent parliamentary budget office to be set up to boost accountability in how tax dollars are used.

"The scrutiny raises everyone's sense of ownership in Singapore," he said, adding that it would be in step with DPM Heng's call for fiscal prudence.

The need to be prudent in spending was echoed by other MPs. Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang) said Singapore should consider a further draw on its reserves only as a last resort, while Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) cautioned against borrowing to fund recurrent spending like healthcare.

To boost the earnings of low-wage workers, National Trades Union Congress deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon spoke on hastening the adoption of the Progressive Wage Model, a wage ladder that sets out minimum pay and training requirements for workers at different skill levels, into six more sectors.

NTUC targets to involve the food services and retail sectors in the next two to three years, a move that will benefit some 70,000 workers .

NTUC is also working to have the model for the waste management, strata management, pest management and solar technology sectors.

Gig workers should also be given some legal protection under the Employment Act, said labour MP Desmond Choo, who noted many of them support the growing e-commerce sector. "There is a pressing need to review the social protection of these workers if we want this sector to thrive," he said.

Meanwhile, labour MP Patrick Tay urged the Government to consider implementing anti-discrimination legislation to eradicate bias in hiring along the lines of nationality, gender or race, among others, saying it would send a strong signal to employers.

Amid greater anxiety about local workers being displaced by foreign hires, MPs also called for multi-national corporations to play a bigger role in grooming local talent and helping local enterprises scale up.

Nominated MP Janet Ang said foreign business leaders in Singapore-based MNCs can help groom local business leaders, as an earlier generation had, while Workers' Party MP Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) said MNCs can partner local firms seeking to venture abroad.

Partnership was also a theme picked up by MPs who called for firms and others to step up and do more for vulnerable groups affected by the crisis as well as the younger generation, and help them navigate a more challenging future. Said Ms Ang: "When business leaders come together and galvanise other business leaders, we can effect change for vulnerable groups.

Another 30 MPs are expected to continue debating the Budget on Thursday, before DPM Heng responds to their suggestions on Friday.

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