Retraining efforts helping to keep workers in jobs: PM Lee

2018 retrenchment rate lowest in over 10 years as a result, he says in May Day message

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore's efforts to retrain workers 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 yesterday.

In his annual May Day message, he said companies might have taken "the easy way out" by retrenching old workers and replacing them with new graduates if training, upgrading and redeploying staff had not been strongly emphasised.

The "dislocation" would have been much worse, PM Lee said.

There were 5.1 layoffs per 1,000 employees last year, down from seven in 2017.

"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 getting phased 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 the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to anticipate these challenges and prepare the unions, union leaders and workers for them early, before they become overwhelming. He cited how NTUC has played a major role in promoting the re-employment of older workers, and championed better pay for lower-wage workers.

Another major long-term task is to upgrade and retrain workers.

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.

He 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 took up greater responsibilities.

The banks, in particular, have retrained thousands of counter staff to move into different roles.

"We are accumulating more such success stories, which I hope will inspire others to make the effort to improve your skills and productivity," he said.

These efforts are starting to be felt at the macro level, he said, adding that labour productivity grew by 3.7 per cent last year - "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 said.

He added that the labour movement has good reason to be proud of its record over the last 50 years.

He recounted how 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 its ranks.

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 new institutions and newly passed laws like the Employment Act. NTUC Income and other labour cooperatives were set up to provide affordable essential goods and services.

A strong labour movement remains crucial to Singapore, PM Lee said, noting that union membership is falling in many developed countries and organised labour is becoming marginalised. Workers' concerns are not addressed.

"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, PM Lee said, the combination of constructive and cooperative unions, enlightened employers and a supportive government have delivered better incomes for workers and steady progress for the country.

"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.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2019, with the headline Retraining efforts helping to keep workers in jobs: PM Lee. Subscribe