SINGAPORE: Making sure no worker is left behind emerged as a central theme in Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 26), as Members of Parliament (MPs) debated the recently unveiled Budget 2019.
Several members, many of whom are also labour MPs, commended the Budget for being “pro-worker”, at the same time suggesting ways for it to be more worker-centric.
Focusing his attention on older workers, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon said that they are “valuable assets who can contribute experience and maturity to our workforce, and we must better ensure their employability and employment”.
“Our older workers, with their years of industry experience, are well-placed to leverage technological tools to maximise their productivity potential,” he added.
He suggested ways for this happen, and said companies must put an emphasis on job redesign to ensure that older workers are able to adapt to new technology and different work environments.
Mr Koh gave the example of some small- and medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) in the manufacturing sector making use of iPads to control industrial robots.
“By using a familiar platform like the iPad as the user interface between the operator and the robot, older workers found it less daunting to adapt to robotics and automation and are able to improve on their productivity,” he said.
Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa asked for workers - and especially older workers - to be given more job security.
He said that this could be done by making the Career Support Programme (CSP) a permanent scheme. The CSP, which encourages companies to hire mature workers who may have been in long-term unemployment, is currently renewed every two to three years.
The terms can be refined from time to time to meet changing circumstances, he said.
RAISING RETIREMENT, RE-EMPLOYMENT AGES
MPs also suggested raising the retirement and re-employment ages to help older workers. Nominated MP Arasu Duraisamy, in asking for the retirement age to be increased from 62 years to 65 years and re-employment age from 67 years to 70 years, pointed out several reasons that many older workers give for not being ready to retire for good.
He said that some older workers need to continue working, as they are sole breadwinners of their families, supporting their children’s education in universities.
“Most importantly, many of them expressed the fact that they are still physically able, relatively healthy and want to continue to be gainfully employed,” he said.
Others find that even at 67 years old, their families’ medical and retirement funds are still inadequate, said Mr Arasu, a member of NTUC’s central committee.
In the same vein, Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh said that older workers “should not be forcibly retired when they still have so much to contribute in meaningful ways”.
He called on the Government to remove the retirement age entirely, and like Mr Arasu, asked for the re-employment age to be moved to 70.
He cautioned that removing the retirement age does not mean to “get Singaporeans to work till they die”.
“It is to reform the system so that Singaporeans do not have to worry about their finances and can retire in their 60s if they want to, but they can also continue to work if they want to,” he said.
FINDING WAYS TO LET CAREGIVERS GET BACK TO WORK
NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How said that there is more that Singapore can do besides reviewing the retirement and re-employment ages to “get the best of our mature working age population”.
He focused on a “latent pool waiting to be activated for work", in particular, about 33,000 women between the ages of 40 and 59, who cited caregiving to family members or relatives, excluding childcare, as the main reason for not working.
Quoting the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force Survey 2018, he said that caregiving is also a secondary reason for many in that age cohort for having to quit work and not being able to get back into work.
“The total latent pool of Singaporeans who can and want to work is significant. This pool will grow as the Singapore population ages further, and more caregiving needs emerge within families,” he said, adding that at the same time, companies across many industries are facing a tight labour market and are “crying out” for manpower to meet their needs.
This shows that there is a structural mismatch between the supply of and demand for manpower, he said, painting a bleak picture of the consequences.
“It is not just a technical problem. There are profound social and financial consequences for the individual, the family, the economy and the country if a large and growing pool of middle-aged Singaporeans forms and is unable to earn for their immediate upkeep and retirement needs. It will fuel inequality and erode social cohesion,” he said.
Mr Heng, who is also MP for Jalan Besar GRC, pointed to another survey that showed finding suitable part-time work was a hindrance for some stay-at-home women in returning to the workforce.
Among his suggestions on righting the situation was providing accessible, affordable eldercare, like in the childcare sector and having a thorough review of how part-time work and flexible work options can become integral to the mainstream staffing models of Singapore companies, alongside the traditional full-time work model.
“We can learn much from advanced economies like the Netherlands and Japan in this regard, as they have been able to achieve high employment rates for both full-time and part-time work, that is, they are more able to more fully activate their mature working populations,” he said.
LOWERING CPF PAYOUT ELIGIBILITY, HELPING SINGAPOREANS WITH LOW CPF BALANCES
Assoc Prof Goh also asked for the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution of older workers to be restored, which he said will allow them to strengthen their socio-economic well-being and age with independence.
There will be ageing Singaporeans who will not have enough savings and who do not own housing assets, he said. If their CPF Life payouts can start earlier, their financial well-being will be secured with their own savings.
“Therefore, I would like to reiterate the Workers’ Party call to lower the CPF payout eligibility age to 60, so that Singaporeans can have the option of meeting their needs with this source of supplementary income,” he added.
He also urged the Government to allow partial CPF withdrawals if a person is so physically or mentally incapacitated that they cannot work for a significant period of time.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Chong Kee Hiong also urged the Government to help Singaporeans with low CPF balances through higher-tiered CPF interest rates.
Explaining, he said that on the first S$60,000 of a CPF member’s combined balances, with up to S$20,000 from the Ordinary Account (OA), an extra 1 per cent interest is paid. Since Jan 2016, CPF members aged 55 and above will also earn an additional 1 per cent extra interest on the first S$30,000 of their combined balances, including up to S$20,000 from the OA.
The extra interest applies on the first S$60,000 and first S$30,000 respectively, regardless if one has combined CPF savings of S$60,000 or S$600,000, he said.
“I hope the Government will consider increasing the additional interest for those who have low combined CPF balances, for example, below the Basic Retirement Sum, to help them earn more in their accounts,” he added.
NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said that NTUC labour MPs and other members placed workers at the heart of their debate speeches.
The labour movement's vision and purpose is about "doing our best for every worker" – something that is both the necessary thing to do for Singapore’s economy, and the right thing to do for society, he said.
“Each worker’s skills, knowledge, experience, contribute to our human capital. Our economy can only be at its best when all our workers are performing to their potential and are rewarded fairly for their productivity,” he added.