SINGAPORE - Singapore's efforts to retrain workers and prepare them to handle new technology and different jobs have made a difference - the retrenchment rate last year was the lowest in more than 10 years, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (April 30).
In his May Day message, PM Lee said that if training, upgrading and redeploying staff had not been strongly emphasised, companies might have taken "the easy way out", retrenching older workers and replacing them with freshly hired new graduates. Many more workers would have been displaced.
"We must keep up our efforts at training and upgrading. It is a marathon without end, but we are making progress," he said.
With new jobs being created even as old industries and jobs are phasing out amid a rapidly changing external environment, the future of work looks very different, he noted.
The labour movement is at a turning point, he said, calling on NTUC to anticipate these challenges and prepare the unions, union leaders and workers for them early, before they become overwhelming.
For instance, he cited how the National Trades Union Congress has played a major role in promoting the re-employment of older workers.
It is part of the Tripartite Workgroup on Older Workers, and has helped build consensus to raise the retirement and re-employment ages beyond the current 62 and 67 respectively.
It has also championed the progressive wage model, which sets out minimum pay for different skill levels in certain industries.
Together with Workfare, this has made a real difference to lower-wage workers, said PM Lee.
Another major long-term task is to upgrade and retrain workers, he said.
On this front, the Government has collaborated with NTUC to start many programmes under SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow, which PM Lee said are still being improved based on experience and the emergence of new needs.
In this year's Budget, for example, the Automation Support Package and Productivity Solutions Grant were introduced to help companies adopt technology and become more productive.
PM Lee said he met Singaporeans at the Lifelong Learning Institute in January who had upgraded themselves through Adapt and Grow programmes and moved into new jobs or enhanced responsibilities, sometimes in new firms or industries.
Banks in particular have retrained thousands of counter staff to use new technology and move to different roles, he said, adding that he hopes such success stories will inspire others to make the effort to improve their skills and productivity.
These upgrading and training efforts are starting to be felt at the macro level, said PM Lee. Last year, labour productivity grew by 3.7 per cent, which he called a good result.
But improvement is needed in domestic services such as retail and food and beverage, even as outward-oriented sectors, especially manufacturing, did better, he added.
Progress is being made, and the labour movement therefore has good reason to be proud of its record over the last 50 years, said PM Lee.
NTUC held the Trade Union Seminar on Modernisation of the Labour Movement 50 years ago. At that time, it was in a state of decay, with falling membership and growing disenchantment among the rank and file, said PM Lee.
But that crucial turning point caused the labour movement to fundamentally shift from confrontation to collaboration, he said.
The unions worked with the Government in support of newly passed laws like the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, and new institutions like the Industrial Arbitration Court.
In addition, NTUC Income and other labour cooperatives were set up to provide workers with affordable essential goods and services.
"This is how the NTUC became a vibrant, progressive organisation, an essential and equal partner in Singapore's unique model of tripartism," said PM Lee.
He added that a strong labour movement remains crucial to Singapore.
In many developed countries, union membership is falling, and organised labour is becoming marginalised, he said.
"Workers' concerns are not addressed, and they feel bewildered, leaderless and helpless. Not surprisingly, they turn to extreme, nativist political movements that pander to their fears and insecurity, but offer no realistic solutions or inspiring leadership to improve their lives," he said.
In Singapore, constructive and cooperative unions, together with enlightened employers and a supportive government, have delivered better incomes for workers and steady progress for the country, he said.
"We must stay on this path, and strengthen trust and cooperation among the tripartite partners, so that despite the uncertainties and challenges in the global economy, we can continue to thrive and prosper together as a nation." said PM Lee, wishing all Singaporeans a very happy May Day.