Digging Deeper: Case Studies
Sustainable and Inclusive Labour Policies
6 minute read
With disruption coursing through economies and long-standing industries, Singapore recognises the need for change to ensure growth and relevance in a changing economic landscape. But equally important is the need to ensure inclusivity in labour policies.
Future-proofing Our Workers and Economy
In 2015, the government unveiled SkillsFuture. The aim was to develop an integrated system of education, training, and career progression for all Singaporeans, promote industry support for individuals to advance based on skills, and foster a culture of lifelong learning. While the widening skills gap is a problem Singapore has identified and sought to address in an increasingly digital era, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there is greater urgency to close the gap, as industries and companies transform their operations.
To do more to prepare our workforce, the government is supporting employers to increase productivity, create opportunities, and redesign jobs. This was captured in the 2021 Budget, which focused on the theme “Emerging Stronger, Together”. The SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package was extended to support not only the hiring of locals, but also to support jobseekers in upskilling and accessing employment opportunities, along with other measures to groom leaders in innovation and enterprise, especially in deep technology areas.
For instance, Hotel Parkroyal on Kitchener Road has redesigned jobs and trained staff to take on higher value-added and tech-enabled roles. Mr Heng Soo Koy, one of the hotel’s pioneer employees, was able to pick up new skills as a senior technician as a result of the hotel’s job redesign efforts in 2019, including conducting preventive maintenance.
In September 2021, networking site LinkedIn also launched a tie-up with the government to drive skills-based hiring, rather than just educational qualifications, with a new initiative known as Skills Path.
Reducing Inequality and Sustaining Progressive Workplace Practices
The Progressive Wage Model (PWM) was first introduced in 2012, made possible through a tripartite partnership between the government, labour union, and employers. It aims to improve the wages of lower-wage workers (LWW) through upgrading skills and improving productivity. Implemented in the cleaning, security, and landscape sectors, the PWM covers over 85,000 workers. Other support measures include schemes to supplement income, provide training, improve working environments, and protect employment rights.
In the 2021 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced changes to improve the economic security of LWWs. The PWM was extended to cover more workers including those from retail, food services and waste management, and specific workers across all sectors, starting with administrative assistants and drivers. The eventual goal is for the PWM to cover all sectors. A new requirement was also set for firms that hire foreign workers to pay all their Singapore employees a “local qualifying salary” of at least S$1,400 a month.
At the same time, Singapore is working to sustain and promote progressive workplace practices that foster inclusive workplaces. This critical as our workforce continues to become increasingly diverse, encompassing employees from different generations, nationalities, abilities, and cultures.
There has been progress. For example, the real median income for women in Singapore has risen by about 32% from 2010 to 2020, with most of them in PMET jobs. To tackle workplace discrimination more effectively, Singapore has enshrined the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) guidelines in law. SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities, also rolled out a new initiative to create training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities in human resource service.
And as Singapore readies for recovery from the pandemic, taking care of employees’ mental health for a resilient workforce has also come into focus. For instance, the Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplaces aims to prioritise the mental health of staff, while a task force called Project Dawn has been put together to improve migrant workers’ awareness of and access to mental health assistance.
Can Singapore reduce our reliance on migrant workers?
The migrant workforce plays an important role in modern Singapore’s economic development. It can be categorised into two groups: low-skilled workers who work mainly in the manufacturing, construction, marine shipyard, and domestic services sectors; and higher-skilled workers with professional qualifications.
The large influx of immigrants and migrant workers stirred strong sentiments among Singaporeans, particularly in the lead-up to the 2011 General Election. Many felt they were facing greater competition for homes and jobs and attributed this to the immigration policy, directing their anxiety and unhappiness both at the foreign populace as well as the government.
Yet, it was important for Singapore to grow the migrant workforce to alleviate our labour crunch and ensure the economy could continue its growth trajectory. Skilled migrant workers were necessary, to seize growth opportunities with expertise and capabilities the local workforce did not have, also mitigating the impact of Singapore’s ageing population. There was also the need to fill lower-skilled jobs, such as in construction – jobs that Singaporeans did not want to fill.
In 2010, then-Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam explained the government’s approach during his Budget 2010 debate round-up speech: “It illustrated the real pressures that the business sector faced at the time. If we had turned away investments and prevented competitive businesses that were already in Singapore from growing, we would have ended up with a decade of very weak income growth”. These businesses needed talent that the local workforce was unable to provide. However, he also acknowledged that increasing Singapore’s dependence on migrant workers was not sustainable in the long term, as this would demotivate employers from innovating and raising their productivity – another long-standing issue.
These businesses needed talent that the local workforce was unable to provide. However, he also acknowledged that increasing Singapore’s dependence on migrant workers was not sustainable in the long term, as this would demotivate employers from innovating and raising their productivity – another long-standing issue.
In recent years, the government has sought to slow the uptake of migrant workers, both skilled and unskilled, with more stringent labour policies. Reducing our reliance on migrant workers would come with trade-offs. For example, rebalancing jobs to create demand for local workers at higher wages would lead to cost pressures on employers, in turn driving prices higher for consumers.
In a speech about Singapore’s challenges in August 2021, Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing brought up the idea of shifting mind-sets past the issue of foreign-local worker balance. “Any country or city aspiring to be a global hub will have to move past the debate on foreign-local worker balance. It will instead have to focus on the critical task of building a global innovation and knowledge network,” he said. “Singapore is no different. We need the best ideas and talent to compete on our side. We also need to pay close attention to the composition of our society. This will take careful calibration, but it can be done.”