SINGAPORE —?Singapore's alliance of the labour movement and employers' federation expects more workers to lose their jobs in the coming months, and urges them —?as well as bosses —?to work with it to soften the blow.
Calling the outlook "sobering", National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng forecast an uptrend in retrenchments in 2024, a year described as "fragile" by economists, given geopolitical tensions and technological disruptions.
He said: "It is going to be a tough year for our workers. We are already starting to see signs, particularly with retrenchment figures doubling and wage growth stagnating, or even declining."
In 2023, when the Singapore economy grew 1.2 per cent, 14,320 workers here were let go, more than double the number in 2022 when growth was 3.6 per cent.
The growth forecast for 2024 is between one?per cent and three per cent.
While the labour movement has stepped up its work to prepare workers for new jobs and careers, the fall from the axe this year could, at best, be cushioned.
Recent rounds of layoffs are rising due to the structural alignment of businesses into new opportunities and the exit of lower value-added businesses from Singapore, said Mr Ng.
Ng was speaking to reporters on Feb 6 at the first annual pre-Budget media briefing that NTUC is co-hosting with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) whose members — on their end —?are grappling with rising business costs.
Top on the two partners' wish list for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who will open the 2024 Budget session on Feb 16, includes financial support for displaced workers to tide them over in the short term, and collaborative training with firms to help them move into new jobs.
Raising the SkillsFuture training credit for individuals is also on the cards.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is expected to announce boosters for displaced workers in the Budget session.
In NTUC's annual survey of about 2,000 workers in December 2023 and January, almost 40 per cent of Singaporean workers said they were likely to lose their jobs in 2024, a jump from 25 per cent in 2023. About 12 per cent of the respondents were unsure, leaving less than half —?48 per cent —?confident of keeping their posts.
Unemployment in 2023 remained low at 1.9 per cent, and while 89,400 jobs were added — higher than the 61,500 in pre-pandemic 2019 —?job growth has begun to slide.
SNEF president Robert Yap said some aspects of the job shedding that is rocking Singapore are "positive" —?they shake up the unproductive segments and help keep industries healthy.
But he called on employers to rope in the alliance early, because that would allow proactive intervention to save jobs, or resettle workers into new jobs.
"A lot of times, employers don't want to inform us as they are afraid that employees become very negative and that affects the entire organisation," he said. "We are trying to change that because we think that openness is important."
Dr Yap would like more fine-tuning to public support schemes. He cited the example of Career Conversion Programmes, which subsidise salaries and course fees of mid-career workers for nine months when they take on a new job. These workers' new employers are left high and dry, unable to get the grant, if their worker quits before the tenure ends.
"Maybe the Government can be a bit more forthcoming in either sharing the risk or mitigating the risks so that they don't fall on the employers," he said. "Otherwise, the take-up rate would not be so good, our transformation will not be that fast."
The alliance is also urging greater support for caregivers and more broadly, flexible work arrangements that will get women and older workers back into the workforce as Singapore's population ages.
About 30 per cent of firms here granted paid caregiving leave in 2022, double the rate in 2012, according to Ministry of Manpower figures. Ng hopes more organisations would follow suit.
Fresh from a settlement over retrenchment terms just two days ago with e-commerce firm Lazada, Ng made a call to workers to join the union.
For younger PMEs —?professionals, managers and executives —?NTUC wants to help them gain work experience, mentorships and financial planning knowledge.
For older PMEs, Ng hopes they will turn to the union earlier and not wait until they are about to get the pink slip. NTUC could support them with the retraining and networking, he said.
The market is such that professionals generally have a harder time moving into an equivalent or better job after age 50, he added."So partner us early."
NTUC understands the need for business restructuring,?Ng said. "But let's have a fair view for the workers. Let us know early, and NTUC can step in for fair package."
Most importantly, early notification helps the union support workers move into a new job in with the least anxiety.
"Sometimes, like approaching Chinese New year, the psychological impact is double, triple," he said of firings made around festive seasons.