SINGAPORE: A seven-month extension of wage subsidies under the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) and a new initiative to bolster hiring in still-growing sectors were among the S$8 billion worth of measures announced on Monday (Aug 17), as Singapore continues its support for workers and businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Announcing these measures in a ministerial statement, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat noted anxieties from workers about job security and loss of income, while businesses and union leaders have spoken about their efforts to retain and retrain workers.
Singapore will have to continue adapting to a rapidly changing situation, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.
With some of the existing support measures ending soon, it is “timely” to advance strategies in three areas, he added.
This includes continuing support for jobs and creating new ones, providing further support for sectors which are hit the hardest, as well as positioning Singapore to seize growth opportunities in a post-COVID-19 world.
EXTENSION OF WAGE SUBSIDIES
To continue protecting jobs, the JSS, which was introduced at the first budget in February, will be extended by up to seven months to cover wages paid up to March 2021.
The scheme – which has so far seen the Government co-funding between 25 per cent and 75 per cent of the first S$4,600 of gross monthly wages paid to each Singaporean or permanent resident employee – was set to expire after covering salaries in August, with payouts disbursed in October.
Mr Heng said the JSS was launched with a “clear goal” of protecting jobs. The scheme has thus far disbursed more than S$16 billion in payouts, helping more than 2 million local workers employed by over 150,000 firms.
The country’s unemployment rate has risen but has so far remained below the peak levels seen during the SARS period and the global financial crisis, said Mr Heng.
Preliminary figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) showed the overall unemployment rate in the second quarter rising to 2.9 per cent from 2.4 per cent. During SARS, the overall unemployment rate was 4.8 per cent in September 2003. During the global financial crisis, it was 3.3 per cent in September 2009.
However, Mr Heng said the JSS cannot be sustained at current levels as it “draws heavily” on the country’s reserves and risks trapping workers in unviable businesses.
Some sectors are also recovering faster than others, so the wage subsidy scheme will be tweaked based on the projected recovery of the different sectors, he said.
Under the extended JSS scheme, companies in the worst-hit aerospace, aviation and tourism sectors will receive wage subsidies of 50 per cent for seven more months.
For the built environment sector, wage support will be at 50 per cent for two more months before being lowered to 30 per cent from November to March 2021. This is in line with the phased resumption of construction activities, said Mr Heng.
The arts and entertainment, food services, land transport, marine and offshore and retail sectors will receive 30 per cent in wage subsidies for another seven months.
The large majority of the remaining sectors will be given wage support of 10 per cent for wages paid until March 2021.
For the few sectors that are managing well, such as biomedical sciences, financial services and ICT, wage support of 10 per cent will be given for just four more months to cover wages paid up to this December.
Mr Heng said with the extension of the JSS, most businesses will receive wage support for 17 months to "help them retain as many workers as possible".
“Even at 10 per cent support, the payouts cover more than half of employers’ CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributions. This ensures that we continue to build up the CPF savings of our workers during the crisis.”
Mr Heng urged all businesses to make full use of this additional support to retain and upskill their workers, while transforming their operations so that they can bounce back faster when the recovery comes.
Firms that are coping well are encouraged to return or donate their JSS payouts, added Mr Heng, noting that nearly 600 firms have already done so.
HIRING IN BRIGHT SPOTS
Mr Heng also announced the launch of a Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI) that will help firms to increase the headcount of their local workers over the next six months.
He said there are still “bright spots” within the economy, such as biomedical sciences, financial services, ICT, public healthcare and long-term care sectors, and that the new scheme will “support hiring in these growing sectors”.
Under the S$1 billion programme – which supports ongoing efforts to create new jobs, with a special focus on mature workers – the Government will co-pay up to 25 per cent of salaries of all new local hires in these firms for one year, subject to a cap.
For workers aged 40 and above, the co-payment to these firms will be up to 50 per cent.
The MOM will provide more details on the JGI this month, said Mr Heng.
MORE SUPPORT FOR WORKERS
However even with the authorities’ best efforts retrenchments will be inevitable, said Mr Heng.
Nevertheless, the Government will continue its support for those who have fallen on hard times, he stressed.
“The Government will continue to work closely with our tripartite partners to help our displaced workers,” he said, noting that the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment is being updated to incorporate the Fair Retrenchment Framework proposed by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC)
Meanwhile, the NTUC Job Security Council, which was set up earlier this year, has matched more than 20,000 displaced and at-risk workers to new opportunities.
READ: NTUC proposes framework as it calls on companies to fairly treat workers affected by retrenchments
Mr Heng also announced the extension of the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) until December 2020.
The grant was introduced in May to help Singaporeans and permanent residents who are unemployed or have suffered significant income loss. So far, more than S$90 million has been disbursed to over 60,000 people.
From Oct 1, the extension will be open to both existing CSG recipients and new applicants. To qualify, unemployed applicants must demonstrate job search or training efforts, Mr Heng said. More details will be shared by the Ministry of Social and Family Development early next month.
More lower-wage workers will also be included under broadened eligibility of the Workfare Special Payment, said Mr Heng, who noted that many of these workers are essential workers who have kept Singapore going during the COVID-19 crisis.
As part of the Care and Support Package announced at Budget 2020, all Singaporean employees and self-employed persons who received Workfare Income Supplement payments for the year 2019 are receiving a S$3,000 Workfare Special Payment this year.
“I will widen the eligibility of this special payment to include those who were not on Workfare last year but have received or will be receiving Workfare for work done this year,” said Mr Heng.
“Our labour market is likely to remain weak beyond 2020. We are studying how to continue supporting employees and self-employed persons who are most vulnerable,” he added.
TRANSFORMING THE ECONOMY
Mr Heng also stressed the importance of continuing to embark on economic transformation, noting that a post-COVID-19 world “will not be business-as-usual”.
READ: 'We are not returning to a pre-COVID-19 world': Chan Chun Sing maps out 'new path' for Singapore
He cited factors ranging from an intensifying strategic competition between the US and China, a reconfiguration of global supply chains and an acceleration in the digital shift.
New areas of growth, such as healthcare, sustainability, and artificial intelligence, are also emerging with jobs that require new skills and new ways of working being created.
To continue to spur innovation and entrepreneurship, up to S$150 million will be set aside to enhance the Startup SG Founder programme in phases.
This will help to raise the start-up capital grant while continuing to provide mentorship, said Mr Heng, noting that start-ups have contributed to Singapore’s economic growth and efforts against COVID-19.
More details will be provided by the Ministry of Trade and Industry later this week.
Mr Heng also provided an update on the Emerging Stronger Taskforce, which was set up earlier in the year to guide Singapore’s economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The taskforce has been consulting widely, and is in the midst of a three-month sprint to prototype new ideas through the industry-led Alliances for Action,” he said, adding that smart commerce and supply chain digitalisation are among the areas being covered.
NO PLANS TO DRAW ON PAST RESERVES
Together with additional funding for the worst-hit aerospace, aviation and tourism industries, as well as tourism credits to boost domestic tourism, the continued support announced on Monday will cost S$8 billion.
Mr Heng said the Government intends to fund these measures “by reallocating monies from other areas, such as development expenditures that were delayed due to COVID-19”.
“There are no plans to draw on past reserves for these measures, beyond what was approved earlier,” he added, noting that he has briefed President Halimah Yacob and the Council of Presidential Advisers on the latest situation and the need for these measures.
As the COVID-19 pandemic poses severe strains on the economy, the Government had earmarked close to S$100 billion over four budgets to support businesses and workers.
However, Singapore remains on track for its worst recession since independence, with policymakers expecting the economy to contract by between 5 per cent and 7 per cent this year.
Data released this week showed the Singapore economy contracting 6.7 per cent in the first half of the year, with a record quarterly slump in the second quarter amid a two-month “circuit breaker” and weak external demand.
Mr Heng said the country’s COVID-19 situation is “now under control”, with the multi-ministry task force working towards resuming more activities in a safe and sustainable manner.
However the global economy remains “very weak”, he said, with much depending on how well countries contain the spread of the virus.
“An effective vaccine, even if found, will take time to be produced and distributed,” he said. “Some countries have re-opened only to experience new waves of infection. These have further set back their economic recovery.”
“We must continue to be vigilant. Safe management measures and restrictions on international travel will be with us for some time,” he added.
Mr Heng noted that it remains a “difficult journey ahead”, but Singaporeans will not be walking alone.
"We are living in unprecedented times. Let us continue to focus our minds on making the best use of what we have, to build a stronger economy and a more cohesive society.”
Watch the full ministerial statement: