SINGAPORE - More than 20,000 workers have been matched with new roles amid the Covid-19 crisis by the National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC) Job Security Council, said labour chief Ng Chee Meng.
This is about double the number matched by early June.
The council, which was set up in February, helps displaced workers or those at risk of losing their jobs move into new jobs or temporary secondments in firms within the group.
The number of companies on board the council has also risen to more than 9,000, said Mr Ng, up from the more than 7,000 companies on board in June when he had provided an update in Parliament.
"In such circumstances, I suppose one can have two different views: that it has grown so fast because of the crisis, I'm not really too delighted about it, but I'm also quite happy that we are able to value-add to the job matching scene in Singapore to help displaced workers," said Mr Ng, who is NTUC secretary-general, in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times on Thursday (Aug 13).
His comments come after Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said on Aug 3 that the National Wages Council (NWC) would be convened for a second time this year, as many employers face pressure to retrench workers amid the significant economic uncertainty.
The ministry announced on Friday that the NWC will reconvene later this month and aims to release updated guidelines by September.
Speaking to ST on Thursday at the NTUC Centre, in the remarkably quiet Central Business District, Mr Ng said he hopes the council will look at how to maximise job preservation, and at the same time look after the welfare of workers, especially vulnerable workers like those earning low wages.
Based on feedback, he expects job losses to continue to increase in the next six to 12 months as the economic impact of the pandemic makes itself felt.
The labour movement's priority is thus to preserve jobs, protect workers and, if there are retrenchments, provide care and support to workers, such as through job matching, he said.
Fair Retrenchment Framework
Retrenchments, if necessary, must be done fairly, which is why NTUC proposed a Fair Retrenchment Framework last month, said Mr Ng.
Among other things, the framework sets out to protect the Singaporean core of the workforce, while foreigners with special or critical skills can be retained as well.
The framework had been months in the making but was announced amid tense union negotiations with aircraft maintenance firm Eagle Services Asia last month, which was planning to conduct a retrenchment exercise unfairly.
Mr Ng had authorised three unions to conduct secret ballots among workers on whether to pursue legal industrial action. If a legal strike had taken place, it would have been the first since the Hydril strike of 1986. In the end, industrial action was averted after an amicable agreement was reached between Eagle Services Asia and the unions.
Asked to elaborate on the incident, Mr Ng said the company had broken trust because workers were being asked to leave the premises in the midst of negotiations and union leaders were told not in person but virtually.
Although not required to by law, he had informed the Government of the situation in an effort to avoid further straining the labour-management relationship.
"My goal (in giving the unions the green light) was not to thump my chest and flex our muscles, but the goal is to actually have an amicable solution to this very difficult and challenging time for the company and for the workers," he said, adding that industrial action is always a last resort.
This is in line with the tripartite approach in Singapore where the aim of the partnership between unions, employers and the Government is to help businesses succeed so that workers can have sustainable wage growth and better welfare, as well as better work prospects as companies invest in Singapore, he said.
"But when companies for whatever reasons take on unfair practices against our workers, then the NTUC will stand up to make sure that this fundamental interest of workers is protected," he said.
He added that some unionised companies alert the unions as far as three months in advance of a retrenchment exercise, which allows the unions to work with the firms to look for ways to cut costs to preserve jobs. This could include applying for government support schemes like absentee payroll funding to subsidise workers' salaries while they attend training.
Competition for jobs
Mr Ng also noted that the overall level of anxiety among Singaporeans about foreigners working here has heightened amid the economic crisis, and suggested that Employment Pass policies may need to be tightened.
He said that at the macro level, building Singapore’s economy is in Singaporeans’ interests, and foreigners are needed both in numbers as well as in talent or skills to augment the local workforce to expand the economy.
But when there is intense competition for jobs at certain levels, then the Government should put in policies to protect Singaporeans so they have fair access to good jobs, he said.
“So where you (want to) have this balance of actually recognising the need for both talent and inject of labour, and the needs of Singaporeans, it will be a never ending process of adjusting our policies,” he said.
For instance, early on, the Government’s work permit policy allowed the number of foreigners in industries where Singaporeans were seeking higher value-added jobs to be controlled, said Mr Ng.
Policies were also introduced to control the number of mid-skilled S Pass workers as Singaporeans moved into better jobs, he said, adding that the next step could be to look at possibilities for Employment Passes, “with a very fine balance between the numbers that are coming in, and also attracting the top talents into Singapore”.
Last week, NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay called on the authorities to disclose the names of companies on the Fair Consideration Framework watchlist, after the Manpower Ministry said it had recently added 47 more employers to the list for for potentially discriminatory hiring practices, on top of an earlier 1,200.
Mr Ng said that naming errant employers would be useful not to shame them but to boost the transparency of the hiring ecosystem and show job seekers which employers are good.
He also said he understands the anxieties and frustrations among Singaporeans about competition for good jobs amid an economic downturn.
"But if we cast our eyes further afield, we must also understand that Singapore is a very open economy. We need the linkages, the networks and the talents that would create and anchor Singapore as an international hub, where we are business-friendly, where we welcome diversity of people into the economy to create the biggest space, the biggest possible space on our nation state so that we can uplift Singaporeans' lives.
"That balance I think is the most challenging one in current circumstances, but nevertheless a critical one that we as Singaporeans must think about."