Parliament: MPs call for greater support to help workers get through Covid-19

People waiting their turn to submit their applications for the Temporary Relief Fund at Nee Soon East Community Club on April 1, 2020.
People waiting their turn to submit their applications for the Temporary Relief Fund at Nee Soon East Community Club on April 1, 2020.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Since he was retrenched from his sales job that drew a five-figure monthly salary, Mr Tan has attended job fairs and sent out multiple resumes.

But the 50-year-old, who lives in a terraced house, remains unemployed and works as a Grab driver to make ends meet.

He does not qualify for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (Sirs) because of the type of home he lives in, said Mr Yip Hong Weng (Yio Chu Kang), who recounted Mr Tan's case in Parliament on Wednesday (Oct 14).

"I still remember his parting words to me at MPS (Meet-the-People Session): 'I have been paying taxes all my life before this. Why is the Government not helping me now?'" said Mr Yip, who was among several MPs who called for more help to be given to workers, including those who have been retrenched or are unemployed.

They were speaking during the debate on the ministerial statement Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made in Parliament on October 5 on Singapore's strategy to emerge stronger after Covid-19.

Mr Yip suggested that one way to help them is to boost their digital preparedness, which the Government can do by coming up with a programme to improve their digital skills.

"It can even be something basic like enhancing their online job search and communication skills. This can be done, for example, via community classes to learn Excel skills and how to use Zoom effectively for team meetings," he added.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) wants the Government to let people temporarily withdraw up to $5,000 from their Central Provident Fund (CPF) to pay for emergencies as the state of their finances worsens amid the loss of their job.

Citing Australia, he said its workers, who are hit hard by the economic fallout from Covid-19, can withdraw up to A$10,000 (S$9,740) from their pension plan.

Singapore can implement a similar arrangement, with stringent eligibility criteria, he added. Currently, CPF members can take out a maximum of $5,000 from their CPF savings only on turning 55.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Bukit Panjang), speaking up for mid-career PMETs, or professionals, managers, executives and technicians, said this group faces "tremendous pressure" to find a job swiftly to support their families.

For this reason, it is crucial to continue supporting the SGUnited Jobs and Skills centres, which were set up across all 24 HDB towns since July, to provide career matching services for job seekers.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (West Coast GRC) proposed that the self-employed who suffer income loss also be given Sirs, which means they can receive three quarterly cash payouts of $3,000 each, in May, July and October.

Noting that the last Sirs payout is to be made this month, he urged the Government to consider extending the scheme for six months, giving varying amounts for as long as the recipient needs help.

The eligible sums could hinge, among other things, on the person's past income or type of housing, he suggested.

He also wants the Sirs criteria to be eased so that more people would qualify for it.

Another of Mr Ang's suggestion is to let companies that do better than in their pre-Covid days, to use the money they receive from the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to hasten their efforts to transform their workforce or donate it to charity.

Under the scheme, the Government currently co-pays up to 50 per cent of the salaries of local workers to help employers retain them.

Mr Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade GRC) wants the JSS to be extended beyond March 2021 for companies in sectors severely battered by Covid-19. Many of them employ large numbers of low-wage workers and might need the extra help, he added.

There is also room for the JSS to be better calibrated to help those who need it more, Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) said as he called for a review of the scheme.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan, speaking in this debate on how Singapore can emerge stronger after Covid-19, assured the House the Government will continue to work closely with workers, businesses and industry partners to help them get through the pandemic.

Jobs and livelihoods will be affected as Singapore restructures its economy, but he expresses confidence that by adapting and transforming the country's workers and businesses, it will be able to seize new opportunities and overcome the difficulties, as it had done before.

"We have been through many ups and downs over the years, but we have always bounced back from adversity. We will continue to press on with resilience and overcome this challenge together," he said.