Union leaders from service sector worry about global uncertainty and possible downturn in economy

President Halimah Yacob flanked by NTUC president Mary Liew and NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng during a dialogue and tea reception with union leaders at the Istana on Oct 8, 2019. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Workers in the service sector are worried about the looming dark clouds heading their way in the face of global uncertainty, impending economic downturn and restructuring of the industry.

These issues were highlighted by unionists when they met President Halimah Yacob at the Istana for a closed-door dialogue on Tuesday (Oct 8).

The President, who had been in the labour movement for about 30 years, later told reporters she was confident the 24 unions in the service sector would be able to handle the potential difficulties.

The reason for her optimism? "Our unionists have had the experience of going through such a downturn and recession."

Citing the 2009 global financial crisis that hit Singapore, President Halimah said the unionists gained experience helping and supporting workers through the difficult period.

"So it's not as if you're coming in completely new, without any experience in dealing with downturns and how to support workers," she added.

The President met more than 60 union leaders for over an hour, during which they raised issues concerning the headwinds confronting them as a consequence of the global uncertainty.

"They are concerned about how that will affect their workers and their sectors."

The union leaders also shared concerns about the general restructuring of their industries, owing to technological changes and other developments.

President Halimah cited issues like climate change and the use of renewable energy that would impact especially those in the energy sector.

But in the past decade, she said, Singapore has made "tremendous" efforts to improve the skills of workers, citing the SkillsFuture initiative and programmes by Workforce Singapore, like its Adapt and Grow initiative that helps Singaporeans acquire skills for new jobs in growth sectors and reduce job mismatch.

"These are programmes and skills that will support and help the workers, in the event of a downturn and they're faced with retrenchment and have to look for alternative employment."

She added that past experience has shown that the unions are strong enough to support workers and their families in a downturn.

If there is a downturn, it should also not divert Singapore away from long-term strategies like strengthening workers' capabilities, which should be done regardless of the state of the economy, she added.

President Halimah was joined on Tuesday by National Trades Union Congress president Mary Liew and secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

The meeting was the second of three the President is holding with union leaders, the first of which was a dialogue. It took place in July 2019 with leaders of the industrial unions.

Her third and last meeting is with union leaders from the public sector.

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