SINGAPORE - A new centre that aims to boost regional collaboration so as to prepare Asean for the changing nature of work was launched on Tuesday (Sept 29).
The Regional Centre for the Future of Work will institutionalise the collective effort to take advantage of emerging opportunities and tackle challenges, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in announcing the launch at a virtual conference.
She added that the centre will bring together international experts and regional tripartite stakeholders to foster social dialogue, share knowledge and build capabilities.
This comes as Covid-19 causes upheaval in labour markets worldwide.
Mrs Teo highlighted how as many as 93 per cent of the world's workers experienced full or partial workplace closures in the first half of the year, and businesses were forced to adapt and shift to remote working arrangements.
In the Asia-Pacific region alone, the amount of working hours lost in the second quarter of the year was equivalent to 235 million full-time jobs, she said. Vulnerable workers in informal and low-wage work were the hardest hit.
"We (Asean countries) face common challenges related to the digital transformation of industries, implementing safe workplace measures and adapting HR (human resources) strategies to enable workers to fulfil their potential," said the minister in her keynote address at the start of the three-day HR Tech Festival Asia conference.
The new regional centre was mooted by Singapore and discussed by Asean labour ministers at a conference regarding the future of work that was held last year, with the ministers adopting a joint statement on the future of work.
The centre will support Asean in putting the statement into action by focusing on three areas that have become even more relevant during the pandemic, said Mrs Teo.
The first involves embracing technology for inclusive growth. Covid-19 has shown that the workforce's adoption of technology can be sped up if there is a strong enough impetus, noted the minister.
Prioritising workplace safety and health, including the fight against virus transmission, is also of growing importance and an area of consensus, she said.
Lastly, tripartite collaboration in designing practical solutions to address emerging challenges is ever more critical amid a continuing economic crisis.
"Whether it is creating new jobs and training opportunities, implementing cost-cutting measures, or managing excess manpower, Governments, employers' and workers' organisations must work together to ensure that business and workers can continue to thrive during this pandemic and beyond, especially those in lower-end and more precarious jobs," said Mrs Teo.
She said the centre's first initiative is the Asean future of work track as part of the HR Tech Festival Asia event.
It is also working with the Workplace Safety and Health council to organise the Singapore Workplace Safety and Health e-Conference 2020 in November, and plans to organise a workshop called "Leaders in Tripartism" early next year.
It will have as advisers Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi, Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency president Park Doo Yong and Singapore's National Trades Union Congress president Mary Liew, who is a deputy member of the workers' group of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Governing Body.
Mrs Teo said Singapore will do its part to support the Asean labour community in answering the ILO's call to "work for a brighter future".
"With everyone's support, we hope that the Centre's activities will help all of us realise our collective vision of a region that is ready for the future of work - one that leverages a skilled workforce, provides safe and decent work for all, and is founded upon harmonious industrial relations," she said.
Speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on labour markets, Mrs Teo said workers in Singapore have not been spared, with overall unemployment rising to 2.8 per cent in June, the highest in more than a decade. The proportion of retrenched residents who were able to secure a new job within six months also fell to an all-time low of 58 per cent in the second quarter.
But in managing the crisis, there is also the opportunity to prepare for an eventual economic recovery and for the future of work, said Mrs Teo.
"We can do this by helping workers stay employed and employable, ensuring safe working and transforming our economy and businesses to seize opportunities. These continue to be priorities for Singapore, even as we focus on battling the threat of Covid-19 due to the public health crisis," she said.
Permanent Secretary for Manpower Aubeck Kam also said in a speech at the conference that Singapore has pivoted from relying entirely on wage support through the Jobs Support Scheme to opening up the new Jobs Growth Incentive, signalling that the Government will support businesses to create jobs early if they have confidence in their business models and that they should not hold back from hiring locals.
It has become clearer that industries and businesses across the world are adapting to Covid-19, and some are unlikely to return anytime soon to operating as they did before the pandemic, said Mr Kam.
In comparison, it had been unclear earlier this year whether demand would quickly rebound as it did in 2003 once the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus was successfully contained, and it made sense then to focus on wage support to help companies keep their workers, he added.
He gave an update on the deliberations of the tripartite National Wages Council, saying that the issue of flexibility, as well as how wages should adjust as and when businesses recover, are being discussed.
The council had made its annual recommendations in March but was reconvened in August, as the labour market had changed significantly since then.
Mr Kam, a council member, said the group is making good progress on coming to an agreement in the weeks to come. It had originally aimed to release its updated guidelines by this month.