Unemployment for locals stable in Q1, but drop in work permit holders sees total employment fall

The Ministry of Manpower building in Havelock Road.
The Ministry of Manpower building in Havelock Road.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Unemployment for Singaporeans and permanent residents held steady in the first three months of the year, with no change from the seasonally adjusted rate for residents of 3.2 per cent at the end of last year.

Labour market indicators were mixed, reflecting the uneven growth in the economy.

Fewer workers lost their jobs but the overall number of people employed in Singapore shrank by the largest amount since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, preliminary first quarter data from the Manpower Ministry (MOM) showed on Friday (April 28).

The fall was mainly in the work permit holder segment.

The unemployment rate in March for citizens was also unchanged from December last year at 3.5 per cent, after a sharp uptick from the rate of 3 per cent in September.

The overall unemployment rate rose to 2.3 per cent, up from 2.2 per cent in December. This is after accounting for seasonal variations.


In his May Day message released on Friday, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say noted that unemployment increased last year and could continue rise to as the economy restructures.

However, he also said the rise in unemployment remains below the peaks that hit Singapore during the 2003 outbreak of Sars, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and the 2009 Global Financial Crisis.

After an increase in the previous quarter, layoffs fell to 4,800 in the first quarter of 2017 - down from 5,440 in the fourth quarter of last year but slightly higher than the 4,710 layoffs a year ago.

There were fewer redundancies in the manufacturing sector, but more in construction and services. MOM said redundancies are expected to remain high as some sectors go through cyclical weakness and businesses continue to restructure.

Total employment fell by 8,500 workers in the first quarter, the biggest drop in nearly 14 years.

Both the manufacturing and construction sectors had fewer workers in March compared with December, with the decrease mainly among foreigners on work permits, said MOM.

Construction in particular saw its worst contraction in employment in at least 12 years.

The industry shed 12,900 workers in the first quarter - its third consecutive quarter of decline.

The services sector continued to add workers to its fold.

The outlook for the global economy has improved slightly, with the Monetary Authority of Singapore's biannual Macroeconomic Review report released on Thursday showing that outward-oriented or trade-related sectors enjoyed good performance since the fourth quarter of last year due to a rebound in manufacturing.

But downside risks and uncertainties remain, MOM cautioned in a statement.

"The labour market outlook is likely to remain uneven across sectors. Hiring in some sectors remains cautious, but opportunities will continue to be available in others such as healthcare, infocomm, finance and insurance, and certain segments of manufacturing," it said.

The ministry's priority is to support displaced workers or people at risk of losing their jobs through Adapt and Grow programmes, and work together with the labour movement and employers to help businesses transform and become more productive.

Labour MP Patrick Tay said in a Facebook post that increasing digital disruption means some sectors are showing growth potential but are also experiencing a churn, resulting in more positions being created but in new types of jobs or roles.

"I urge workers and employers to stay ready, relevant and resilient - ready with new skills; relevant for new jobs; and resilient to new changes," said Mr Tay, who is assistant secretary-general at the National Trades Union Congress.