Braced for rough weather amid Covid-19: Workers worry over jobs and livelihoods

Social safety nets here may need an upgrade if job losses continue to climb, say analysts

Most of the layoffs have been in the hardest-hit sectors such as services, accommodation and food, and construction, but previously healthy sectors are suffering too.

Just last week, Singapore Airlines made further wage cuts and offered its cabin crew early release or retirement, on top of a 10 per cent cut in basic salary for all staff last month, and early retirement for ground staff and pilots.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents about 290 airlines comprising 82 per cent of global air traffic, has said it expects air traffic to return to pre-crisis levels only in 2024.

Several well-known law firms here have imposed pay cuts across the board - a move not seen in previous crises.

Dentons Rodyk and Big Four firm WongPartnership are among the largest law firms here that have announced firmwide wage cuts, with both doing so by stripping out the front-loaded bonuses of lawyers.

The overall unemployment rate here rose to 2.9 per cent in June - the highest in over a decade, and up from 2.4 per cent in March.

The rate for Singaporeans alone rose to 4 per cent, from 3.5 per cent.

With ongoing travel restrictions on the once lucrative tourism market, safe distancing measures reducing the number of customers at eateries, and business uncertainty, job losses are expected to go up.

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah says the resident unemployment rate could hit 4.2 per cent this year, affecting over 100,000 citizens and permanent residents.

He puts the overall unemployment rate at between 3.6 per cent and 3.8 per cent.

Mr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, says sectors such as e-commerce, logistics and finance are still hiring, but the numbers are small compared with the larger job displacements.

  • Half-time report and what's to come

  • The release of second-quarter estimates last week painted a grim picture. Singapore's economy contracted 6.7 per cent in the first half of this year, and is likely to shrink by between 5 per cent and 7 per cent overall. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has said that the country will not return to a pre-Covid-19 world and must chart a new path. Insight looks at the numbers so far, and what the new normal means for workers, firms and economic policies.

"Whether it's retrenchment, elected voluntary retirement or early release, these numbers will spike sharply over the next few months," he says.

Government measures have helped staunch the flow of job losses.

A report by the trade and industry and finance ministries last week said that four rounds of Budget support measures amounting to $93 billion, or almost 20 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product, had reduced the rise in resident unemployment rate by 1.7 percentage points.

The Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) of wage subsidies is expected to shave 0.9 percentage of a point off the resident unemployment rate this year.

But there is little cause for cheer.

First, measures such as the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme, which provides cash payouts to self-employed workers, and rental waivers will taper off by the year end.

The last payout for the JSS is in October, unless the scheme is extended.

Second, the rise of remote work means that many white-collar jobs - especially those involving a digital component - can be done from anywhere, including countries with a cheaper workforce.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has said many jobs here are now advertised with the option of "can work in Singapore" or "can work remotely".

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said earlier that because Singapore is able to retrain workers, place them on attachments and traineeships, and get them back in jobs quickly, unemployment benefits are not needed yet.

These are needed only in countries with high structural unemployment over time, he added.

But analysts say that if job losses continue to climb and workers struggle to find new jobs quickly, social safety nets here may need an upgrade.

"How much companies - especially SMEs - can afford to pay (in terms of retrenchment benefits) would be in doubt," says Mr Leong.

Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin suggests subsistence income support lasting three to six months, covering up to 100,000 Singaporeans who have lost their jobs.

"(Direct unemployment benefits) are less costly, more targeted and effective than a blanket wage subsidy scheme," he says, adding that it is hard to justify extending the JSS for sectors that are doing well, such as finance, electronics and pharmaceuticals.

He estimates that the total bill for such temporary support would be less than 5 per cent that of a blanket subsidy over the same period of time.

While the Government encourages workers to retrain and upskill, analysts point out that not everyone can successfully pivot to a new job or industry.

There has to be realistic expectations of what can be achieved through skills development programmes, as not all jobs have a short runway to conversion, says Singapore University of Social Sciences Associate Professor Walter Theseira.

"Some skills require quite a lot of time and training and are dependent on other pre-existing skills to really shine - like data analytics, which usually performs best when the analyst also understands the industry or business the data comes from."

What is almost certain is that those who enter the workforce now will face depressed wages for some time. Studies have shown that the wage effects of graduating in a bad economy tend to be large, negative and persistent.

More than 10 years after the global financial crisis, the International Labour Organisation has found that wages in advanced economies have barely inched up, and wage growth has in fact declined.

National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School Professor Lawrence Loh says the coronavirus pandemic could reduce mobility across or even within generations, as wages usually lag behind economic recovery.

It has also cast doubt on the value of a university degree as the path to higher pay and a good career.

Even white-collar jobs traditionally taken by graduates are now threatened by automation and artificial intelligence, says National Institute of Education Associate Professor Jason Tan.

Universities here have responded to the changes by pairing with companies in emerging and growth sectors.

For example, a Bachelor of Technology in computing will be rolled out this month by NUS, in partnership with SkillsFuture Singapore and Singapore-based global consumer Internet company Sea.

It will be the first SkillsFuture work-study degree programme to be delivered in a "place and train" mode, with participants hired as full-time junior analysts prior to the programme's start.

But Prof Tan notes that even the most well-planned educational reforms can be derailed by global political, economic and social forces. The pandemic and escalating US-China tensions are a case in point, he says.

"What's unsettling is that it's not 100 per cent possible to predict the changes - we are working with moving targets.

"The education system is, of course, trying to respond. But for a long time it has been very heavily exam-focused."

Meanwhile, despite the tough labour market, 24,000 job seekers have been placed into either employment or training opportunities as at end July, with about six in 10 in short-term positions.

Around 40 per cent of the 24,000 placed positions are for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs). On the lower proportion of PMETs who have been placed compared with the available opportunities, Manpower Manpower Josephine Teo said last week that this is due to the less straightforward matching process for PMETs compared with non-PMET jobs.

"Host companies or employers are looking for a better match in skills, experience, as well as wage expectations," she said.

"We still hope that job seekers may consider giving these opportunities a try because they do allow you to gain relevant experience, and hopefully when the company is in a position to hire permanent positions, you will be in a better place to access these," she added, urging job seekers to consider all opportunities available.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2020, with the headline Braced for rough weather amid Covid-19: Workers worry over jobs and livelihoods. Subscribe