Productivity falls for first time in 10 years; economists say it's likely cyclical

Workers at a construction site in Kim Keat Avenue, on Nov 5, 2019.
Workers at a construction site in Kim Keat Avenue, on Nov 5, 2019.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore's labour productivity fell last year for the first time in at least a decade, but economists said it remains to be seen whether the nation's productivity and restructuring drive is still on track.

Real value-added per actual hour worked declined by 1.5 per cent, the first negative reading since the series was started in 2010.

Measured as real value-added per worker, it fell by 0.8 per cent.

The last time this reading was negative was during the 2009 global financial crisis.

The Ministry of Manpower said the decline was in line with the slowdown in economic growth, coupled with strong employment growth.

Economic growth of 0.7 per cent last year was the lowest since 2009. The ministry cited the labour productivity figures yesterday in its statement on labour market developments.

Productivity declines in manufacturing and services outweighed the improvement seen in the construction sector last year.

Economists said the overall fall was probably due to cyclical factors as Singapore is a highly open economy.

OCBC Bank chief economist Selena Ling said that with the tight labour market, employers tend not to hire and fire frequently.

What would then tend to swing figures from year to year would be economic growth, though further falls in productivity could indicate more structural issues, she said.

Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin said that despite the latest figures, "we cannot conclude that the Government's productivity drive has been successful or a failure over the past decade".

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah said: "Median income growth is a better indicator of whether we are making progress in restructuring, since at the end of the day that's the target - having income growth for Singaporeans."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2020, with the headline 'Productivity falls for first time in 10 years; economists say it's likely cyclical'. Subscribe