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Labour crunch will stay for many years: Swee Say

[SINGAPORE] The labour market in Singapore will remain tight until 2020 - and become even tighter for a full decade after that.

This was labour chief Lim Swee Say's outlook for the country's manpower situation in his annual May Day Message released yesterday.

"Competition for good people will not ease. Only better employers can attract and retain better people and grow more profitably," he said.

His comments come as the ongoing tightening of the labour market is spurring a much faster pace of economic restructuring.

On its part, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has promised to push on with its plan to upgrade skills, create more good jobs for workers, and continue to grow the economic pie such that there is more to go around.

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"This labour market tightness is not something that we can hope will go away. It won't go away," Mr Lim, NTUC's secretary- general, told reporters during a briefing to expand on the points in his May Day Message.

The Singapore economy is going through a transition towards one driven by productivity and innovation, rather than by boosting its manpower numbers.

This labour restructuring is causing much "stress" to all parties: businesses, workers, unions and the government.

Last year, Mr Lim noted how Singapore's total manpower grew 4 per cent, but productivity growth remained flat at zero per cent.

"The moment we fail in our restructuring, we will lose our competitiveness and growth. That's when job creation will slow down as well," he warned.

He painted a bleak scenario for Singapore where rank-and-file workers are replaced by robots; PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) are underemployed; mature workers cannot fit into workplaces because they are not age- friendly; working parents are unable to have a good work-life balance; and low- wage workers are stuck in a world of cheap-sourcing.

"If we allow these to happen, we will face higher unemployment - not just because of a job shortage, but also because of job and worker mismatches," said Mr Lim. Singapore should never take the healthy jobs situation that it has today for granted, he added.

Previously, a person had to compete with workers from other countries. Now, there is the added stress of competing with the advances of technology as well, as there is a fear that more employers will make use of robots to replace - not complement - their workers, he said.

Besides the workers and employers, Mr Lim said that customers and consumers, too, have to play their part in this ongoing effort to restructure the economy.

"The globalised world thrives on mutual dependency, mutual support and mutual acceptance. Good services beget good customers, and good customers beget good services," he said.

"As we strive to become a more advanced economy, we must also strive to be a nation of better customers and better people."

Overall, Mr Lim said Singapore's economic growth remains healthy with a tight labour market. Wages have continued to move up faster than inflation.

Describing these achievements as hard- earned, he took the opportunity to pay tribute to workers and the tripartite partners for their "hard work, resilience and unity".

"Even though we celebrate May Day amid labour shortages, we should be mindful that good jobs will always be the best welfare, and full employment the best protection for our workers, both young and old," said Mr Lim.

Separately, NTUC president Diana Chia said in her May Day Message that Singapore's unionisation rates are growing, at a time when many countries are experiencing the opposite.

Singapore's unionisation rate of resident workers rose 27 per cent last year, up from 20 per cent in 2002.

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