“You have been retrenched.”
What June dreaded had finally come to pass. She had lost her job as a production planner at a semi-conductor firm.
“It felt like the sky had fallen down on me!” recalls June Lim who had been working with the company for some six years.
The day she was retrenched, the company handed her a brown paper bag to pack her things and a pack of tissue paper for her tears.
Although she had prepared herself, when the blow came it cut deeply.
“Everybody would be looking at you (packing your belongings from your desk)”.
“That feeling is really sad. You really cannot describe that feeling.”
June’s retrenchment came when she was pregnant with her second child. It was a complicated pregnancy that saw her on hospitalization leave.
She had no inkling that the company was cutting staff until she started receiving text messages from her ex-colleagues.
“I was home all this while. I did not hear any rumours from colleagues till the day of actual retrenchment” she recalls.
“I totally could not sleep. At all.” she says emphatically.
“So many, thousands of questions, repeating and repeating in my head.”
“If I am one of them what would I do? Everything comes to you in one shot. I have one girl in childcare, would I lose all the working mother benefits? How am I going to survive without the pay? My new house is coming ...” .
Sitting at a café not far from her home where she spends most of her time caring for her children, June is now a picture of composure.
But not back in December 2013.
“I was holding the phone the whole day waiting for somebody to call me”, relating how she agonized over rumours of her impending retrenchment for weeks. June was officially informed by the company’s HR only on the day she returned to work.
“I received lots of messages from my friends and ex-colleagues (while on hospitalization leave). Some had heard that I was retrenched so they were consoling me. I asked them ‘did you hear something?’ When I did find out for sure, it was already the end of December.”
June knew that the odds of her finding another job quickly were stacked against her.
“At the back of my mind, I knew nobody would want to employ a 4-month pregnant lady”
Nonetheless, she reached out to contacts who were hiring staff, only to be disappointed. “She told me she could not take me because I am four months pregnant” June says, gazing down at her cup of tea.
June’s husband became the sole breadwinner in the family that included his retired parents. Although he was very supportive, she could not help but feel like a burden to him.
“Initially, I felt a bit guilty.”
“My husband was the only one working. He was also studying at the time. He had a mid-career switch and was training to become a safety officer. He was doing a lot of course work. He was working very hard and studying very hard.”
The family rallied around June, telling her to ignore the matter and concentrate on the baby who was on the way.
In the months that followed, June seldom left the house and chatted with her friends online instead of meeting them in person.
“Once you go out you need to spend (money)” she rationalized. “I just told myself I am not supposed to move around much anyway” she further psyched herself, thinking of her pregnancy. “So it’s not as bad. At least I told myself that to feel better!” she laughingly adds as a wry grin flickers briefly.
A new job, but not for long
When her second daughter was born, things began looking up. After a year of unemployment, June landed another job in January 2015 at a company that made LEDs.
Her life regained some semblance of normalcy. But it was not to last.
A little over a year on the job, in February 2016, June was retrenched again.
“When you are retrenched, you will be hit by the emotions first and you totally blank out.”
“You cannot stay calm or absorb what (the Human Resource managers) are saying” says June.
However her first retrenchment had taught the young mother to be better prepared should the worst happen again.
“One day (in 2015), I went to the canteen and saw two uncles sitting beside a small banner for the UWEEI (United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries)” recounting what was to be her lucky day.
The two men were union leaders with the UWEEI that was holding a roadshow to educate staff about their workplace rights.
"One of them said ‘You must sign up! I was also retrenched’. So I signed up”.
June who was then, happily settled in her new job, also convinced her colleague to sign up as a UWEEI member after recounting her painful retrenchment.
Although June calls herself a union member “by chance”, her conscious decision to join a union meant that she didn’t have to leave matters to chance.
“This time, I knew my rights and asked about retrenchment payments. When I asked HR what union members get, I was ushered to a different room with a union representative” she recalls of the exit interview.
“The representative gave me an eight-page document with details on what is taxable after retrenchment as well as information on Central Provident Fund contributions. It also tells you where are the places you can go for help, who you can look for, and what you can do about your situation.”
“That is all useful information. From there, you know how to plan.”
Although no one wants to face retrenchment even once, June, who had to experience it twice, was thankful that the second time found her better prepared. “I wished I knew all this the first time I was retrenched” she shares of the union’s help in her second retrenchment.
“I was only supposed to get one week’s pay because I had worked there for less than three years, but I received a month’s pay as the union had negotiated with the company for the (higher) payout” reveals June who was also fortunate to be working in a company that had a union.
The trade representatives had also negotiated exclusively for union members such as June, an additional two weeks of pay to be used for skills upgrading courses and other training to improve their employability.
The hard truth is, retrenchment can happen to anyone.
It doesn’t help that the number of lay-offs are rising.
The Ministry of Manpower revealed that 4,710 workers were laid off in the first quarter of 2016, which is the highest for first-quarter redundancies since 2009. Less than half of residents made redundant in the last quarter of 2015 only re-entered employment by March 2016.
And in the second quarter, unemployment continued to rise among Singapore citizens and residents due to weaker economic conditions, according to preliminary estimates released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
Retrenchments also continued to rise, with about 5,500 workers laid off during the quarter, up from 4,710 in the first quarter and 3,250 a year ago, according to MOM.
Having gone through the mental, physical and emotional turmoil earlier, of being made redundant, June now handles her retrenchment experience with a different outlook.
“After retrenchment, you have to be positive.”
"You still have to pick up somewhere and move on. If you don’t, you will still be stuck in that same position. Another important thing to know is that there is a lot of help available.”
While actively searching for a job, the 36-year-old has taken advantage of NTUC programs such as e2i coaching to polish her resume, as well as job placement schemes.
“You really need to spend time to look through … see what sort of help is suitable for you” she advises while adding, “make use of WDA and other organisations to find subsidies or job placement help”.
June also ventures to suggest retraining for a different career.
“I think you also have to be open to options. You have to step out of your comfort zone.”
“Maybe you can look beyond that, to explore alternative roles or even something totally different. I have worked in the electronics sector but I love childcare, so I am looking at areas I never thought of going into.”
Dealing with retrenchment and a career switch is uncomfortable, but not impossible.
Healthcare assistant Tamil Arasi Rajagopal is well into her 50s. Just like June, she too was retrenched twice.
With a long background in the manufacturing sector, she had hoped to stay in the same job and industry, but came to accept the fact that both she, and her job options, had to change.
“I was very upset and stressed” she says thinking of her retrenchments. “I was thinking, how was I going to manage my family’s income … with financial difficulties, no job and having to look after my elderly mother and her medical expenses” her voice trails off as a little frown creeps across her forehead.
“I went for a security course for one month, sales course … I worked as a (security) guard and didn’t mind the hours, also at a supermarket and a retail outlet. But I wanted to find a full-time job.”
“With WSQ and e2i that I read about in the newspapers and online, I found other courses to upgrade myself, such as healthcare service training. Basically, I was looking for a way to get a stable job.”
“From e2i and the courses I took at WSQ, it helped me find a job.”
It helps to have an open mind and also be open to training. Even before being retrenched, Tamil was game to picking up new skills such as basic computer use. Her focus on training changed when she lost her job, but her attitude didn’t.
“I think it is better for us to take up courses to improve ourselves since there are a lot of courses. If you attend courses it is very easy for you to get a job.
“There is no age limit” reminds the 56-year-old. “Just have the right attitude and cooperate ... if you are willing to learn and determined to learn, you can succeed for sure.”
“Don’t say no. Try.”
“Even if the course may not be what you have been familiar with …you will get used to the change. Sure, you may find it difficult at first. But later on, you will get used to it.”
As her supervisors at Singapore General Hospital note, Tamil initially faced some difficulties understanding the lessons taught in the Healthcare course.
But she stayed determined to pass the competency tests and set her mind to practice all the skills such as feeding and bathing patients and took a proactive approach to learning from fellow nurses.
After finding a new career in healthcare, she didn’t stop learning and attending courses, earning along the way, the 2016 May Day Inspirational Worker award.
The petite woman with a ready smile admits that it was not easy to adjust to the change in her life initially.
“In the beginning because I switched careers, I was not comfortable at having to work closely with people. From handling devices in the manufacturing sector to handling patients in a hospital. But I talked to the people and over time, I got to know them all."
“I am happy with my job now … It takes time. My supervisor, Sister Annie motivated me and told me not to give up. So did my family members, who told me that I would get used to things. Now, I feel very comfortable with my work at Singapore General Hospital. And it has been six years” she says with her voice brimming with pride.
Is retrenchment a bad word?
Tamil and June were asked their opinion on retrenchment.
“Nobody is indispensable to the company” is what June has learnt from her two encounters. “Those people who think it will never happen to them, think again! It may not have anything to do with your ability. The company may just be unable to keep you at that time and the management made its decision,” says June.
And as Tamil reminds: “You must change your mindset. Think positive. Don’t dwell on the negatives.”
Produced in partnership with NTUC to help workers know their rights and options with the Unusual Labour Movement