Budget debate: Issues raised by MPs concerning workers, local and foreign

Workers in contact-intensive sectors should take the opportunity to deepen their skills in artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0-related solutions. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - At the start of debate on the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) budget on Tuesday (March 2), 25 MPs spoke on various topics concerning workers. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo and her colleagues will reply when the debate resumes on Wednesday.

Helping workers in this crisis

Labour MP Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) highlighted that Singapore's unemployment rate is lower than other economies at around 3 per cent, while that of Hong Kong is at 7 per cent and the United States at 6.3 per cent.

But Singapore is not out of the woods yet, with recovery far from certain, said Mr Choo.

He noted that the aviation, aerospace, hospitality and retail sectors "have years before they can recover", and asked MOM how it will support their workers, especially as the Jobs Support Scheme is slated to end this September.

The National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general also spoke about how workers and companies were united with the Government to implement cost-cutting measures to save jobs, and urged the House to continue to safeguard and invest in Singapore's tripartism.

"I hope that while we look at refining out manpower policies, we do not forget tripartism, Singapore's bulwark against debilitating economic forces. It has worked during every one of our crises. And it has worked during the deepest of the Covid-19 pandemic," he said.

Meanwhile, Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) spoke about how the Jobs Growth Incentive and Workforce Singapore's Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP) for individuals to make mid-career switches are complementary schemes that provide a form of "co-insurance" for both the employers and employees.

He asked if co-funding support could be made permanent, and if the PCP could be made part of a larger unemployment insurance programme, citing schemes in Sweden and Germany as examples.

Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang) sought an update on the SGUnited Traineeships and how many fresh graduates have got full-time jobs through the scheme. He also asked MOM whether it has plans to expand the programme.

Think of three groups

To minimise the scarring effects of a prolonged slump from Covid-19, Nominated MP Hoon Hian Teck suggested a framework to think about three groups of workers: those in contact-intensive sectors; those in other sectors of the economy; and fresh graduates.

One, those in contact-intensive sectors like aviation should take the opportunity to deepen their skills in artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0-related solutions so they can seize opportunities when international travel resumes.

Meanwhile, firms in tourism can take advantage of domestic demand to cater to residents who are unable to travel, and build on digital platforms to reach overseas customers, said Professor Hoon.

Two, the Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI) is an important measure that will help workers employed in the rest of the economy, by creating a "good supply of new job vacancies in growing sectors".

Three, new graduates will also benefit from the JGI and SGUnited Traineeships, but Prof Hoon said the Government can consider co-sharing the cost of postgraduate education with firms in potential growth sectors.

Better protection

NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay (Pioneer) called for a tripartite workgroup to be formed to review the Industrial Relations Act to clarify that only executives with senior management functions are excluded from collective representation.

He said parts of the law are too broadly worded that some bosses claim that low- and mid-level executives are excluded.

He also urged MOM to review the Trade Unions Act to allow freelancers to be union members "without compromising or contravening traditional collective bargaining and representation". This would allow gig economy workers like food delivery riders to enjoy what NTUC and the unions offer.

He also proposed amending employment laws or introducing a new law to better protect freelancers and their rights as workers, alongside current employees.

Mr Tay highlighted the 20,000 professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) who earn less than $2,600 a month and asked if MOM could examine if these are "disguised PMEs" given inflated titles.

Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked if MOM will urge more employers to adopt flexible work arrangements to allow more women to return to work, while Ms Mariam Jaafar (Sembawang GRC) asked if the Government would consider requiring firms to provide nursing rooms for working mums, and workplace benefits like hiring incentives for women over 40.

Local-foreign balance

Ms Cheng Li Hui (Tampines GRC) pointed out there are sectors Singaporeans are not interested in working in, such as marine and offshore, and manufacturing, that have a large number of openings.

Foreign worker quotas for some of these sectors have been cut, and if firms cannot attract sufficient local workers despite improved wages and job redesign, business operations would be affected, she said, urging greater latitude for work passes in these sectors.

Ms Yeo asked how MOM plans to assist and support small and medium-sized enterprises to create a more balanced Singaporean core given the narrowing of the dependency ratio ceiling.

Mr Choo also spoke about how Singapore should evolve its foreign manpower system. He said: "It has served companies well over the years as they could expand beyond what our small local workforce size would allow. The question going ahead is how to help businesses to operate effectively while at the same time, allowing for the Singapore core to grow."

He acknowledged this is a difficult balance, with industries becoming more complex and firms needing multi-skilled workers doing multiple roles.

Foreign workers

Several MPs, including Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC), called for better welfare and protection for migrant workers in Singapore.

Mr Perera highlighted the hefty agency fees migrant workers pay to get jobs here, and asked if MOM could consider setting up a standardised job portal for both workers already in Singapore and those looking for opportunities here. Employers with quotas and licensed employment agents here would be the only ones allowed to advertise vacancies on this portal, he said.

On the same topic, Mr Ng said the high fees that workers pay to secure jobs here also results in a huge power imbalance between workers and employers that undermines Singapore's labour laws.

Ms Ong noted how the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in the living conditions of migrant workers, and called for ways to protect workers' rights to safe and nutritious meals without passing on the costs to them.

Labour MP Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade GRC) stressed the need to relook their living situation, and asked if there are plans to further regulate these conditions by increasing the scope of the Foreign Employee Dormitories Act to smaller dormitories.


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