Coronavirus: Uncertain future for some amid emerging wave of retrenchments

PHOTO: COURTESY OF LUKE PEREIRA
Full-time model Luke Pereira is relying on his savings as modelling and production shoots have ceased.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LUKE PEREIRA

After saving lives, saving jobs is the most important priority in battling the pandemic, the Government has made clear. Two months into the outbreak, some workers have been retrenched, while MPs tell of a spike in cases asking for help. Companies, meanwhile, share how they are struggling to avoid laying off workers. Tan Tam Mei and Joyce Lim report.

About two weeks ago, Madam Kristin Goh, 38, served her last day as a guest services executive.

Understandably so. Her company offers corporate housing, and business had dried up entirely as the outbreak hit Singapore in late January.

"Companies started cancelling or postponing business trips when countries began to put in place travel bans. By early March, the financials were really bad," said Madam Goh.

By late March, the grim news hit home. Her company, which was part of a larger group, was shut down and she, along with about 20 colleagues, was retrenched. Gone is her monthly salary of $4,200.

The months ahead will be tough as she and her husband, a former general manager who is also unemployed as he has been unable to find a suitable job, figure out how to pay for the family's expenses and loan instalments amounting to more than $5,000 monthly. They have three children aged between one and 18.

In the past weeks, she has sent out at least 60 job applications, including those for temporary work related to Covid-19 operations like temperature screeners and safe distancing ambassadors. But she has not heard back from anyone yet.

For now, the family is getting by with ComCare assistance of about $1,300 monthly and other forms of help such as grocery vouchers and occasional funds and food rations from various groups.

Official statistics of retrenchments in recent months are not yet available. But Madam Goh is among an emerging wave of workers who are being laid off due to the Covid-19 crisis.

MPs say they are seeing a rise in the number of affected workers approaching them for help.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat estimates a 25 per cent increase in the number of residents who have gone to him due to job or income loss in recent weeks, including those in the hospitality and food and beverage industries, and the self-employed.

He is stepping up measures such as a new online job portal to help them find employment within his Toa Payoh East-Novena ward.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Likewise, labour MP Patrick Tay has also seen more appeals for help from residents in his Boon Lay ward in West Coast GRC.

They stem mainly from a drop in income, said Mr Tay, who is also National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general. Those affected also come from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-SMEs. He said: "Overall, nationally, my observation is that many companies are still trying to hold the line and are not resorting to retrenchments."

For workers such as a 39-year-old known only as Mr Tay, however, the time has come. Mr Tay, who declined to give his full name, was previously a business development director at a corporate travel agency, where he worked for about 18 months and drew a salary of about $6,500.

At the beginning of last month, Mr Tay was told to take unpaid leave, which he agreed to.

"But less than a week later, my boss said he would have to retrench me," he said, adding that after the Government announced the enhancements to the Jobs Support Scheme last week, he asked if the company would reinstate his position, but to no avail.

Under the scheme, the Government will cover 75 per cent of all local employees' wages for April, up to the salary ceiling of $4,600, as part of efforts to save firms and jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic. To help his family, Mr Tay has applied for the Temporary Relief Fund (TRF), which is a one-time $500 payout to those eligible.

In a recent advisory, the Manpower Ministry strongly urged employers not to resort to retrenchment or prolonged no-pay leave to manage business costs during the circuit breaker month.

 
 
 

It also called on firms that have already taken cost-saving measures, such as redeployment and wage adjustments, to review if they can use the additional government funding to better help employees.

Still, some workers find themselves confronting an uncertain future. Some have had to take cuts in pay or working hours, while others find it impossible to find new jobs.

Full-time model Luke Pereira, 26, is relying on his savings for the ongoing circuit breaker period as modelling and production shoots have ceased.

"It is scary that I will have no income for this period. But worldwide, everyone has been affected," he said, adding that he has applied for the TRF. If (the circuit breaker period) goes on, I will have to find a plan B for work," he said.


Help for Singaporeans, PRs facing job or income loss

TEMPORARY RELIEF FUND

• A one-time cash assistance of $500 for those who lost their jobs or at least 30 per cent of their income due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

• For Singapore citizens or permanent residents (PRs) who had a gross monthly household income of $10,000 or less, or a gross monthly per capita income of $3,100 or less prior to loss of jobs or income.

• Not currently receiving ComCare assistance.

COVID-19 SUPPORT GRANT

• From May 1, those eligible will get a monthly payment of $800 for three months.

• Singapore citizens or PRs aged 16 years and above who are unemployed because of retrenchment or contract termination due to Covid-19.

• Household income of $10,000 or less, or per capita household income of $3,100 or less before unemployment.

• Live in a property with an annual value of $21,000 or less.

• Not currently receiving ComCare assistance.

• Must have been employed as a full-time or part-time permanent or contract staff prior to unemployment, and agree to participate in job searches or attend training under Workforce Singapore or the Employment and Employability Institute.

• The Ministry of Social and Family Development earlier said those on ComCare assistance are unable to apply for the Temporary Relief Fund or the Covid-19 Support Grant. This is because they already receive comprehensive support for their basic living expenses, including cash assistance as well as assistance with household and medical bills.

JOBS SUPPORT SCHEME

• The Government will help employers to retain their workforce by subsidising 75 per cent of the first $4,600 of monthly wages for all local workers for April.

• Salary support is 25 per cent for another eight months, with higher subsidies of 50 per cent for those in food services, and 75 per cent for those in tourism and aviation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2020, with the headline 'Uncertain future for some amid emerging wave of retrenchments'. Print Edition | Subscribe