Ministry of Manpower Committee of Supply 2016 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered in Parliament on 8 April 2016)

Fairness in Employment – Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap

It is recognised that MOM has taken a couple of steps towards ensuring fair employment within Singaporean workplaces, with TAFEP and the FCF as two examples. However, there are two key problems with existing schemes. First, a lack of enforcement measures – while the Government has in the implementation of FCF, recognized the existence of ‘double-weak’ firms, firms that are found to have flouted the rules will only have their work pass privileges curtailed. The second problem is the low take-up rates of voluntary schemes. To date, 4,439 organisations have signed the Employer’s Pledge by TAFEP, but with 9,106 manufacturing establishments and 158,784 services establishments in 2014, TAFEP’s coverage does not seem substantive. More can be done in pushing for an agenda in ensuring the Singapore core is able to contribute competitively but still ensure a competitive foreign labour force to be engaged by employers.

In order for the Government to effectively manage manpower policy in the ensuring the Singapore core, and to enshrine the importance of fair employment practices within Singapore, I propose that a National Employment Framework be developed and instituted. This would unify all the current frameworks which loosely contributes to the Singapore core drive into a single, coherent framework to ensure minimal overlaps in policy. To reinforce the framework, additional enforcement powers to penalise ‘double-weak’ firms for discriminatory hiring practices should be implemented within the framework.

Given that such a framework would take time to debate and hammer out, a transitional measure should be put in place to further the incentives for taking up fair employment practices. I propose a Fair Employment Contribution Fund, where firms can contribute to help fair employment efforts. In return, firms can enjoy incentives, such as corporate tax rebates or CPF Employer Credits. The fund can be used to fund the agency overseeing NEF activities.

Flexible Work Arrangements – Daniel Goh 

Madam Chair, according to the Minister, the proportion of employers with at least 25 employees providing at least one form of Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) stands at 47% in 2014. However, the actual number of employees who utilize FWAs appear to be low. According to the Minister, the FWA Incentive under the Work-Life Grant has covered only about 900 Singaporean employees in two and half years.

Incentives alone are insufficient to encourage the utilisation of FWA. The current FWA set-up is entirely dependent on the employer’s voluntary initiative. Giving employees the right to apply for the Work-Life Grant to fashion and take up FWAs in their companies, with the employers incentivized by the Government grant to accept, can overcome employer’s inertia to FWA adoption. After employees initiate such applications, employers can refuse the request on reasonable business grounds, but must discuss options available with the employees, with the Ministry acting as facilitator.

Another thing that the Ministry could consider under the Work-Life Grant is to promote All Roles Flex for larger Singapore companies. Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) Australia extended flexible working to all 6,000 employees. In All Roles Flex, employee performance rather than actual face time and hours spent working become the most important criteria for work evaluation. Vesting employees such flexibility allows them to be at their best, fosters happy families so that employees can focus on their work, and therefore positively impacts productivity.

Under-employment Indicators – Sylvia Lim

As mentioned in my Budget speech, I believe the government should put in more effort to measure underemployment.  Let me highlight three suggestions.

First, the government could put into its headline numbers not just the employment and unemployment rates but two other indicators it is already gathering.  For some years, the government has been publishing some statistics on “time-related underemployment”, showing the hours worked versus the hours that employees are available and willing to work.  The government also gathers data on “discouraged workers” viz. those who have given up the job search.  Headlining time-related underemployment and the numbers of discouraged workers will focus public attention to these two important statistics that are not captured in the employment and unemployment statistics.

Secondly, while I accept that measuring under-employment by time is probably the only internationally-accepted measure, we know that working less hours is just one aspect of underemployment.  How can we measure underemployment where a person is being under-utilised in terms of his earning capacity?  Could we consider collecting data on income earned versus median income for that qualification and age, or perhaps compared with previous income?

Thirdly, it has been noted in the United States that in the last decade, the growth of Temp and Contract jobs has surged (see e.g. New York Times article 31 March 2016 by Neil Irwin), with the proportion of Americans working as independent contractors soaring.  In Singapore, according to the Ministry’s Report on the Labour Force 2015, there were 202,000 contract workers.  Does this figure capture all those who are on contract, freelance or ad hoc work arrangements?  Can we expect such alternative work arrangements to increase, given the uncertain economy, the need for employers to manage costs, and the automation of jobs?  If so, there will be more Singaporeans facing issues such as poor job security, intermittent CPF contributions and little or no medical benefits.  Are we adequately measuring the numbers of Singaporeans who are under-employed in this way?

Silver Support – Chen Show Mao

Come July, the first Silver Support Scheme payouts will be made to some 140,000 Singaporeans above the age of 65. The payouts are meant to provide “a modest but meaningful supplement to their retirement incomes” in support of the bottom 20% to 30% of Singaporean seniors.  I welcome this support.

I would like to reiterate our earlier calls for Silver Support payments to be made monthly instead of quarterly. With monthly payouts and the more consistent liquidity they provide, the elderly will be able to better manage their day-to-day expenses.  Would behavioural economics suggest that making the payouts monthly could even nudge the seniors to use more of the payouts to pay for those significant living expenses that are incurred monthly, such as utilities bills and others?  If so, this would help the seniors better manage their limited cashflow.

I hope the Minister will also consider adjusting the amounts of future payouts for inflation, perhaps at the start of every term of government, to ensure that the support our needy elders receive keeps up with rising costs of living.

As many members have said in many different ways, I hope that a degree of flexibility can be built into the eligibility considerations of the payout scheme, involving the three criteria of lifetime wages, housing type and household support.  I appreciate that clear-cut rules and a high degree of administrative efficiency may be required to deliver Silver Support to needy seniors in large enough numbers.  However, balanced against that consideration is of course our hope that specific needy seniors who deserve support do not fall through the cracks of rigid eligibility criteria.  Some use of resources, time and efforts in making discretionary assessments in exceptional cases would be well spent.