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PME jobs, gig economy top of the list

"In NTUC, we have three priorities for this year: jobs, jobs and jobs," said Mr Chan.


THE pressure on jobs for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) and the corresponding rise of the gig economy - where full-time, conventional jobs are replaced by contracts - were some of the top issues raised during the Budget debate on Wednesday.

It was pointed out by speakers in Parliament that disruptions and a slowing economy have led to an increase in retrenchments, with the PMEs the most affected. As a result, more are joining the ranks of the gig economy.

At least four speakers addressed the gig economy directly and called on the government to better protect this group of workers.

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In his speech, Member of Parliament Tan Wu Meng expressed concern that the gig economy would allow firms to further "privatise the benefits" of having an employee, while "socialising the responsibilities" of looking after the worker.

In the past, the relationship between employer and worker included benefits such as sick leave, healthcare coverage, and other support. But with a gig economy, this shifts responsibility and risk from the company to the worker.

Asked Dr Tan: "Who pays the CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributions? Who covers the insurance? What happens if there is an accident on the job?"

These developments would have "profound implications" for Singapore as a significant chunk of social and labour policies - such as healthcare and housing - are tied to this employer-employee relationship through the CPF contribution, he said. "The market alone is not enough to impose discipline."

Member of Parliament Ang Hin Kee also pointed out the vulnerability of this group of workers at the hands of market forces.

"For some of these workers, they may hold the title of freelancer in name, however, they have little control and bargaining power over their work … Very often than not, the payment structure and work arrangement are heavily controlled by the service buyers."

He added that common challenges include payment issues, intellectual property protection, income instability and the risk of not saving enough for medical and retirement needs.

To tackle the issue of the gig economy, Dr Tan suggested that the government test-bed new ways to assess an employer's CPF contribution responsibilities. For example, there could be a formula that looks at the total remuneration from the "gig employer", or the number of hours spent on gigs.

Dr Tan also suggested that the ministries develop an operating system to specify employer's responsibilities, such as the minimum CPF contribution from the employer, per hour, per task or per unit of labour. There could even be risk pooling among the "gig employers" so that the worker still has insurance coverage, he said.

In his speech, Member of Parliament Saktiandi Supaat reiterated his call to give the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment (TAFEP) more "investigative and authoritative powers" to keep errant employers in check, especially in the context of a gig economy.

But the growth of the gig economy did not come about by accident - speakers noted that it is intimately tied to disruptions and the loss of jobs that resulted.

Addressing concerns about jobs, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, speaking in the capacity of labour chief, assured the audience that it was on the top of their minds.

"In NTUC, we have three priorities for this year: jobs, jobs and jobs. Jobs for people who are displaced today, jobs for people who might be displaced tomorrow."

While he reiterated the message that government grants and subsidies alone won't create sustainable jobs, he acknowledged that new models are needed to help new forms of employment, such as freelancers and contract workers, protect their legal rights. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has initiated a study and is in the process of studying the implications of long-term structural changes to their employment market, he said.

Mr Chan added that the labour movement will support the MOM to make sure all workers - full-time, freelancers or contract workers - have "peace of mind for today and for tomorrow".

Patrick Tay, Member of Parliament for West Coast, and assistant secretary general of NTUC, was one of the speakers who spoke up on the "worrying trend" of rising unemployment among PMEs, as well as the slower rate of re-entry into the market.

Instead of releasing optimistic numbers of new jobs for the various Industry Transformation Maps, which would mean little to the unemployed or retrenched, one of his suggestions is for a more realistic picture of the jobs market.

This is by identifying and sharing where the jobs are, which companies are hiring, and what skills and training are needed to prepare for future jobs.

He suggested that tripartite partners work together with the Institutes of Higher Learning, industry partners and stakeholders, as well as research and consultancy companies to better sense, synthesise and provide a clear signal so as to not place the current unemployed into current jobs, but the future unemployed into future jobs.

One observation that Mr Tay made about mid-career switches through the Professional Conversation Programme was that PMEs enter a new sector or job at the entry point, regardless of the accumulated years of experience elsewhere.

"I find this is sometimes unsatisfactory considering many mature PMEs have accumulated one to as many as three decades of work experience and that their other innate skills are not taken cognisance of."

Member of Parliament Ang Wei Neng recommended that the government set up a cross-ministry working committee comprising representatives from agencies such as the MOM, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Head of Civil Service, to catch those falling through the cracks.

Despite the pains PMEs are facing in terms of restructuring and retrenchment, it was acknowledged that the transformation process is an inevitable one, and workers must prepare themselves through continuous learning.

Nominated Member of Parliament Randolph Tan said: "Regardless of whether one believes in net gain or loss of jobs due to the introduction of new technologies, there is little doubt that existing jobs will give way to new ones and the workforce must be prepared to adjust to this reality."