Budget debate: MPs urge speedier support to help firms, workers cope with coronavirus impact

SINGAPORE – Hastening support for businesses and workers, as well as expanding the coverage for vulnerable groups, are among the suggestions made by MPs to help those hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak cope in the short term.

Speaking at the start of the debate on the Budget statement on Wednesday (Feb 26), MPs said that while the $4 billion Stabilisation and Support Package for firms and employees announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat last week was comprehensive, more help may be needed.

JOBS AND TRAINING SUPPORT
Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower, said that support for firms and workers can be sped up to help those already feeling the pinch.

Payouts for the Jobs Support Scheme for example, which will offset 8 per cent of wages for every local worker for three months, could be brought forward, he said. Payment will be given to employers by the end of July this year.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) echoed this call, noting that the timing of the payouts could mean the difference between survival and failure for some firms. “Many of the smaller companies are already struggling to remain in business, and it would be tough for them to wait for another five months,” he said.

Mr Poh added that smaller firms may also lack the manpower and finances to send workers for training, and asked whether the Government can help with this conundrum.

Mr Tay, who is the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary-general, proposed reinstating the NTUC’s Surrogate Employer Programme, which was implemented during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis in 2003. 

Acting as a “surrogate employer”, NTUC provided course fee funding and training allowances to workers whose companies could not sponsor their training. This included tour guides and workers put on unpaid leave.

“I see a good opportunity for us to revisit and reintroduce this scheme to support workers who may fall through the cracks, or those not covered under current schemes such as our freelancers and self-employed Singaporeans,” Mr Tay told Parliament.

He said that many workers, especially freelancers and the self-employed, have also asked that the SkillsFuture top-up scheduled for October be rolled out earlier so they can make use of the downtime to train themselves.

Training support for mid-career Singaporeans could also be expanded by allowing those aged between 40 and 60 to use their top-up credits for more courses and targeted career coaching, he added.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) noted that the qualifying period for the Job Support Scheme is for salary paid from October to December 2019.

“Hence, there is this possibility that employers who enjoy this cash grant could still lay off the workers in the months later,” he said.

To eliminate this possibility, Mr Liang suggested that the wage support be disbursed only for workers who remain in employment through July 2020.

Mr Liang, who chairs the Finance and Trade and Industry GPC, was among several MPs who urged private sector stakeholders such as landlords to supplement the Government’s support measures, for example by providing rental relief.

NTUC secretary-general and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Ng Chee Meng said that while Singapore is better prepared to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, given its experience with Sars, the Republic is also facing a deeper and more wide-ranging impact to its economy this time around.

Hotel occupancy rates, for example, have fallen from highs of 85 per cent to about 35 per cent, while attractions have seen visitorship drop by up to 90 per cent. Taxi and private-hire drivers have experienced declines of up to 40 per cent in their earnings, and many workers are facing uncertainty over whether they will be able to keep their jobs, said Mr Ng.

“As for employer feedback, we are starting to see delays in the supply chain as the reach of Covid-19 deepens. Also, some companies are suffering from a shortage of workers, while ironically, others have excess capacity,” he said.

Union leaders are helping companies to manage excess manpower and reduce costs by arranging for subsidised worker training and upskilling through NTUC’s LearningHub and e2i during the current lull period, said Mr Ng.

The labour movement will also provide support to workers to help them tide over this period, with a focus on professionals, managers and executives, as well as the self-employed, he said.

FOREIGN WORKER LEVIES
Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) was among three MPs to ask for a reduction or waiver in foreign worker levies for businesses that have been hard hit by the virus outbreak.

This forms a gap in the announced relief measures, given that foreign workers represent a significant share of manpower in the food services and retail sectors, he said.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said in response that the Government is waiving levies for employers that employ foreign workers required to serve quarantine, Leave of Absence or Stay-Home Notices. “But we have not done so for foreign workers in general because it will not
benefit the many employers who only have local employees,” she said, adding that levies have remained the same since 2017 for the construction sector, and 2016 or earlier for other sectors.

Measures to deal with the short-term effects of the business slowdown should not negate longer-term efforts for companies to become less reliant on foreign manpower for growth, she added.

EXPANDING SUPPORT FOR BUSINESSES, SELF-EMPLOYED
Several MPs asked that support measures be extended to cover more sectors and vulnerable groups of workers, such as freelancers and the self-employed.

Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if the temporary bridging loan programme for businesses in the tourism sector could be offered to those in the four other sectors that have been badly hit – aviation, retail, food services and point-to-point transport services.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon noted that while these sectors feel the impact of the virus spread most acutely, the prolonged shutdown of factories in China has disrupted supply chains around the world, causing knock-on effects on other industries.

“The manufacturing and service sectors are also facing a manpower squeeze as many workers from Chinese are unable to return to Singapore for work. This adds extra pressure on our already tight labour market,” he said.

“I hope that the Government can pay special attention to sectors that may feel the downstream ripple effects of Covid-19, especially if the situation is protracted.”

Freelancers and the self-employed are particlarly vulnerable to losses of income during the current situation, and more must be done to help them, several MPs said.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) noted that these workers will not be eligible for the various assistance schemes announced in the Budget.

“For example, many tourist guides are self-employed. Would the Government roll out measures to help them find other interim and part-time jobs?”

Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) said that there cannot be absolute parity with traditional employees, as the self-employed enjoy the flexibility of contract work. 

One approach to providing a better balance of bargaining powers for such workers is to allow for greater union representation, he said.
Another is to classify them, within a limited definition, as workers defined by the Employment Act. 

“Both of these approaches are not without their limitation but it certainly betters the lot of the (self-employed)… I hope that the Ministry can also provide greater support for (them) in the second phase of Covid-19 support,” said Mr Choo.

LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) said that the scenario of a long-drawn outbreak is a top-of-mind concern for many Singaporeans. While Mr Heng has provided assurance that the Government will do more if needed, many are worried about how long it will be able to sustain large deficits, she said.

“What will an extended Stabilisation and Support package look like? How will it be further financed if the impact is even more broad-based than the tourism and transport sectors directly hit by the outbreak; when supply chains continue to be disrupted; when consumer sentiment and demand continues to decline; and companies start to shed their local manpower?”

Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) suggested that the Government aid struggling businesses by boosting consumer demand. Firms can entice consumers by giving them monthly discount coupons for air tickets, hotel stays and shopping vouchers, while the Government can help by giving matching grants to businesses, he said. 

A total of 31 MPs including office holders spoke on Wednesday, with the debate set to continue on Thursday (Feb 27).

DPM Heng is expected to respond to the suggestions when he rounds up the Budget debate on Friday.

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