Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates' Conference on 17 November 2021.
Sister Mary Liew,
Brother Ng Chee Meng,
Brother Robert Yap,
President of SNEF,
SM Teo Chee Hean, Minister Tan See Leng, and my fellow Cabinet colleagues online,
Brothers and sisters with us here and joining us online,
Good morning! It is my honour to join you for the NTUC Ordinary Delegates’ Conference.
A few months after PM Lee addressed the National Delegates’ Conference two years ago, COVID-19 struck.
The pandemic has dramatically altered our lives, and severely hit the livelihoods of many workers.
Working together with the Labour Movement, the Government was able to mount a swift response.
The Labour Movement was a voice for the ground, and reached out to support affected workers. You contributed good ideas to our many discussions and engagements on how to support our workers.
Very early on in the pandemic, Brother Chee Meng and union leaders spoke to me about the importance of preserving jobs and capabilities, should the economy contract sharply.
This contributed to the development of the Jobs Support Scheme and other measures. A study by MAS showed that our budget measures saved or created some 155,000 jobs on average over 2020 and 2021 and prevented a rise in unemployment by 1.7 percentage points.
The Labour Movement played a crucial role in working with employers to preserve jobs through the Job Security Council, with more than 40,000 workers matched into new jobs. Thank you very much.
COVID-19 came like a storm. Not only did you help shelter our workers from the worst of the weather, you also helped workers and their employers make the most of the downtime and provided support for them to upskill.
You took active part in the Alliances for Action, working with brothers and sisters in our industries and agencies to prototype new ideas, including pilots to gradually resume our business events and trade shows.
You helped our workers and businesses emerge stronger from this storm. A sincere thank you to all our brothers and sisters for working with us to pull through the very difficult early phases of the crisis!
Almost two years on, we are still learning to live with COVID-19.
The global economy is on the mend, and is forecast to grow strongly this year and next. This will help to regain the ground lost in the pandemic. But we cannot take this as a given.
Many regions are still fighting recurrent waves of infection, and we cannot discount the threat of new variants emerging.
Much uncertainty remains, and jobs remain very much top of mind.
Challenges of Labour Market
The concerns about jobs will remain with us for a long time. Even before COVID-19, structural shifts were already taking place in the global economy.
Rapid technological advancements are reshaping jobs. So the skills of today may not be enough for the jobs of tomorrow.
At the same time, our workforce is also ageing. We will need to better cater to their needs, and enable them to take on new roles well.
A more globalised world also means that foreign competition can come, without the workers setting foot in Singapore.
All these means that it is not possible for us to protect every job. But we can, and must, protect every worker. As Sister Mary Liew, Brother Chee Meng and our union leaders always emphasise, Every Worker Matters. And the best way to protect every worker is to help them achieve lifelong employability.
To do this, we must continue to restructure the Singapore economy.
Our economic transformation efforts, which started in 2016, have achieved good results pre-COVID-19. In the three years since we started our ITMs:
Singapore’s labour productivity grew by 2.7% per year, up from 2.2% in the preceding three years. Over the same period, real median income grew by 3.7% per year, higher than the 3.2% in the preceding three years.
In our next phase of transformation, we are updating our Industry Transformation Maps, with ITM 2025.
Tripartism must continue to underpin this effort. But we need to renew our model of tripartism.
Transform to Transform
Unions have historically been about collective bargaining. This is still the case in many parts of the world, pitting unions and employers on opposing sides.
In Singapore, all that changed in 1969. The Labour Movement organised the Modernisation Seminar, ushering in a new approach of moving away from confrontation to collaboration between unions and employers.
The strength of our tripartism has been tested and strengthened through difficult times – from our first economic recession in 1985, to the Asian Financial Crisis, the Global Financial Crisis and now COVID-19.
In the next evolution of tripartism, the Labour Movement can create even greater impact by taking collaboration to the next level. You can become partners in transformation, working together with employers and the government.
As Sister Mary Liew reminded us, we must act now, so that you can serve members and workers even better.
You have made new moves in recent years. By expanding beyond the traditional employer-employee nexus, you have taken on a larger role in shaping our economy and our future, whilst continuing to be a strong champion for workers.
From my discussions with union leaders, there are three key areas in this transformation.
First, you will need to work more directly with companies to transform their businesses, so that their workers can succeed.
Second, as the labour market changes, you can serve more workers, by expanding your outreach, and addressing workers’ lifelong needs holistically.
Third, you will need to garner broader support from our people, to renew the compact for our workers.
Working more directly with companies. Serving more workers holistically. Garnering broader support to renew our compact for workers.
Let me elaborate.
I will start with your efforts to work more directly with companies.
The Labour Movement has been an invaluable partner in working with our employers to help workers to succeed.
For example, you are working with employers to invest in the training and upskilling of our workers, with e2i playing an important role. And you are working with employers to boost the wages and well-being of our workers.
I have often said that the fortunes of employers and employees are intertwined – better workers enable companies to be more competitive, and more competitive companies can invest in their workers and pay them better.
A very important reason for the success of our Labour Movement is that all of you understand well that the interests of our workers are best served if our companies can succeed and grow, and can uplift their workers along this journey.
The Company Training Committee, or CTC, reflects this understanding. This is a new form of partnership between union and company to drive both business and workforce transformation. Almost 800 CTCs have been formed.
I have visited quite a few companies with CTCs. One of them is multi-national Thales Group. A CTC was formed between Thales DIS and the United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries or UWEEI.
For a start, UWEEI has worked with Thales to redesign the jobs of 25 mature workers involved in materials handling, including Sister Rosnani Mat Sham. These are physically demanding jobs, which become harder as one ages.
With the deployment of automated guided vehicles, Sister Rosnani and her co-workers are now able to carry out their work with even greater efficiency! Having been freed from these repetitive tasks, they can now focus on other aspects of their jobs that contribute to improving factory floor productivity.
In the next phase of transformation, UWEEI and Thales will be exploring the greater use of technology across different areas of work, potentially benefitting many more workers.
This brings me to one aspect of the CTC, driving tech adoption for companies through Ops-Tech Roadmapping.
With support from A*STAR, the Labour Movement has built up a core of industry training officers to undertake Ops-Tech Roadmapping for companies.
Through Ops-Tech Roadmapping, you work with companies to identify the technologies needed to advance their business strategy, from digital solutions, to automation, to robotics.
More than 130 companies have completed their Ops-Tech Roadmapping. This has enabled them to create new value with the deployment of technology, and at the same time, create better, higher-value jobs for their workers.
A beneficiary of Ops-Tech Roadmapping is Copthorne King’s Hotel. The hotel embarked on this journey after forming a CTC with the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union.
The hotel charted a five-year technology roadmap, which also includes the redesigning of jobs and the upskilling of staff.
One feature is that, guests requesting toiletries and fresh towels no longer need to call the concierge. They can use their mobile phones to send a request to a chatbot.
These initiatives improve the guest experience and enable staff to be more productive. These efforts also put Copthorne King’s Hotel and its workers in a stronger position for recovery once travel resumes.
At the heart of it, the CTC is about people. Introducing new technologies and solutions is one part of the equation. An equally important aspect is to help workers get used to change.
In many economies, workers are worried that their jobs could be taken away by automation and robots. But this is not the case here.
Working with employers, you help workers pick up digital and other skills, and help them move into new roles post-transformation.
With better human-machine interface, machines help our workers to do their work even better. This has been the history of Singapore’s industrial transformation, and I have personally seen many good examples when I visit our companies.
With an extension to retirement and re-employment ages, workers will also need to continually pick up new skills, including operating new machines.
Not only will the work of the CTC lead to better prospects for workers, this is also the best way to help them stay relevant.
Overall, the CTC has made good progress in a short two years. But the urgency to transform has become more pressing. While you name them Company Training Committees, based on the work carried out, it might be more accurate to describe them as Company Training and Transformation Committees!
We must reach out to more companies – working with them to transform and create better jobs. And help workers upskill to take on new roles, with better prospects and wages.
In evolving our tripartism – from confrontation to collaboration, and now to partners in transformation, I am glad that the Labour Movement is working closely with Brother Robert Yap and SNEF and the Government to do so.
We are also bringing on board key stakeholders, including SBF and our trade associations, our Institutes of Higher Learning, and our HR professionals.
The changes we are seeing are promising. Together, we can bring our expertise and experience to bear.
Hence, I suggest that our Labour Movement, SNEF and the Government come together, to explore how we can build on the changes that Sister Mary Liew and Brother Chee Meng started, to further transform our tripartism.
We must strengthen partnerships on how to support companies better in their innovation and transformation efforts, how to develop our people by designing better jobs and more relevant training programmes, how to build better workplace culture and develop the human resources profession, how to serve our workers better, and bring more companies and workers on board.
In this age of accelerating changes, we must build a workforce and workplaces that are ready for the future.
This brings me to my second point – serving more workers.
As our labour force continues to evolve, I am glad that the Labour Movement has kept pace with the changes.
I was happy to hear that NTUC’s membership has surpassed the 1 million mark this year for the first time!
One key change in our labour force is the growing number of PMEs.
Today, they make up around four in ten of our workforce.
I am glad that the Labour Movement has been going all out to champion the concerns and interests of PMEs.
You have made it a priority to address their anxieties around job security and employability, especially for mature PMEs and those facing disruption.
NTUC and SNEF convened a PME Taskforce last year to boost the employability of PMEs.
The Taskforce recently released their recommendations, including the introduction of a point system for Employment Passes and enhancing fair employment practices through the improvement of HR standards.
The Government is considering these recommendations. As our economy becomes more technology intensive, jobs with high technical skills requirement will grow.
The Labour Movement will need to help more workers into these jobs, and add the ‘T’ to the PME framework.
I should add that while the term PMET is a nice short-hand way of describing the changes in our labour market, we can explore ways to embrace more workers across different jobs, as the labour market is changing.
For example, an important change is the growing segment of self-employed. With digital technology, the gig economy is expanding quickly. The Labour Movement has moved swiftly to better protect our freelance and gig workers. Last year, two new associations were set up to represent creative content professionals and delivery drivers.
You have also extended relief payout to support members who contracted COVID-19. The unions are now moving forward to champion stronger laws and better terms and conditions for our gig workers.
Such work demonstrates how the Labour Movement continues to be alive to the challenges of today’s changing labour profile, and how you have stepped up to address them.
You must remain close to our workers, so that you can effectively represent their interests.
You must continue working with the Government and employers, to chart the way forward.
The Labour Movement also has a big part to play in developing our workers.
The learning needs of our workers have evolved. Increasingly, workers are looking beyond job-specific training. They want to learn and develop more broadly, and they have more diverse interests.
The way we learn has also evolved. Most of us have gotten used to going about many aspects of our daily lives online by now, including digital learning. Learning has also become more interactive and more modular.
The Labour Movement has responded to this shift in learning demand.
Today I am pleased to join tripartite partners to launch the Learning Experience Platform, or LXP in short.
Brother Hong Tat told me LXP is the “Netflix of Learning”. Like Netflix, workers can subscribe to LXP and gain unlimited access to a wide range of content, from personal and leadership development, to emerging areas such as coding and blockchain. But unlike Netflix, SkillsFuture credits can be used to defray LXP’s annual subscription costs.
LXP can also be seen as the CET version of the Student Learning Space – the online learning portal that our schoolchildren are using. Our workers can also learn together, and encourage each other!
For a start, there are over 75,000 courses on LXP that workers can choose from. The LXP team is increasing the range and depth of offerings to better cater to the specific needs of our workers – in partnership with our local enterprises, multinationals, and international content providers.
Some of these courses can lead to skills certification and micro-credentials.
I encourage our workers to explore the LXP. Over time, I hope they deepen their interests and nurture new ones.
In addition, LXP will also serve as the online learning management system for CTC companies. Companies can create job-specific content, put them on the platform, and track the progress of their workers.
This is one example of how the Labour Movement brings together different parts of its eco-system in a more complete way – driving transformation and building capabilities through the CTC, and helping workers grow through the LXP.
Much as our companies are transforming, I am glad that the Labour Movement is doing likewise, both in terms of who you represent and how you support them. I am confident that you can continue to transform to strengthen your contributions to our workers and employers.
This brings me to my third point, garnering broader support from our people to renew the compact for our workers. Tripartism has been a success by any measure.
Unlike in many other economies, our workers have continued to experience progress.
Real income grew in the decade prior to COVID-19. I mentioned earlier that median income has risen. And those in the bottom 20 per cent experienced faster growth than the median.
Our youths have access to many opportunities. Overall unemployment remains low, even though many countries are struggling with youth unemployment.
Much of this is due to the tireless work of the Labour Movement and tripartite partners. Often this takes place behind the scenes – difficult negotiations, company by company, sector by sector, with the welfare of our workers always at the core.
But beyond the work we do behind closed doors, the Labour Movement can engage a broader group of stakeholders, to build a better understanding of and support for Singapore’s brand of tripartism.
This is especially so at a time of growing global anxieties about economic competition and widening disparities.
We must help our people understand how the collective tripartite effort benefits Singapore and Singaporeans.
We must help MNC headquarters, who oversee operations around the world and face different unions in these countries, to better understand our approach to tripartism. Our Labour Movement is a partner to change, and not opposed to change.
A key concern I have is whether we can continue to stay open to the world.
Our openness and connectedness to the world is a key factor behind Singapore’s success. It has allowed us to create many good jobs, keeping our unemployment rate low.
But in times of crisis, some detractors choose to play on the fears and anxieties of our people. For example, there have been calls to cut off the entry of foreign workers, in the false name of protecting the interests of our workers.
But the hard truth is that we are short of workers in some sectors, where Singaporeans are less keen to take up these work, and in emerging areas, where we have not built up enough talent yet.
By bringing in workers with the right skills, we complement our local workforce and enable our companies to compete better. When they can compete better, they can create more and better jobs for our workers.
So we will need our tripartite partners to work even more closely together to explain our approach to Singaporeans, MNCs and any company that is based here or wishes to locate to Singapore.
This harks back to the time of the Modernisation Seminar. When we welcomed MNCs here, there were concerns that foreign investors would exploit our workers as cheap labour.
Instead of reacting in fear, tripartite partners saw that the MNCs brought the chance to learn new skills, create new jobs, and build an ecosystem of opportunities for our local enterprises.
Together, we explained our approach to Singaporeans, helped them access these opportunities, and made MNCs’ investments work for Singapore. Tripartism paved the way for Singapore to ride on the wave of globalisation, after we became independent, benefiting generations of workers.
In the same way, the Labour movement, together with our tripartite members, can continue to be a constructive voice in explaining to workers why it is in their long-term interests for Singapore to remain open.
Another example of how the Labour Movement can play a constructive role in engaging the public is on the issue of inclusive growth.
Take the Progressive Wage Model. Last week, we announced that the basic monthly wage of security guards will increase to $3,500 by 2028. Earlier in the year, we announced that basic wages of cleaners will increase to over $2,400 during the same period. These are substantive wage improvements.
But more can be done to bring the public on board. Improving wages would inevitably mean consumers having to pay a bit more. We can help Singaporeans better understand how it will benefit our lower wage workers. It is also useful for the public to understand the constraints faced by employers and buyers.
We want to be a society that values the work and contributions of all, and that will protect the dignity of all workers, including our lower wage workers.
By participating actively in public discussion and engaging key stakeholders, the Labour Movement can be even more effective in winning hearts and minds for advancing the welfare of our workers.
In our short history, Singapore has gone through several crises. Each time we adapted and evolved. Each time we bounced back stronger. I am confident that COVID-19 will be no different.
Today, our economy is on the mend. But the next chapter will be more complex and uncertain. Jobs will be very much top-of-mind for many Singaporeans for years to come.
As we seek to recover from our worst economic crisis since Independence, we are also updating our brand of tripartism – from confrontation, to collaboration, and now partnership in transformation.
To be an effective partner in transformation, the Labour Movement itself must also further transform – by working more directly with companies, serving more workers holistically, and garnering broader support from our people, to renew the compact for workers.
In the same way we are asking companies to transform and workers to upskill, the Labour Movement will need to walk alongside them.
The Labour Movement has been a symbiotic partner of the PAP, a steadfast anchor of tripartism, and a relentless champion of workers.
In the coming years, you can play an even bigger role in creating a better life for our workers through better wages, better well-being and better work prospects.
Together, we can build a fairer and more prosperous Singapore for everyone. Thank you!
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