Singapore urges union and business collaboration to tackle future labour challenges
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Shani Alexander
Shani Alexander, Senior reporter

On the back of rapid technological advancement around the globe, Singapore’s government has called on unions and businesses to future-proof the nation’s labour force against the employment challenges of tomorrow.

Speaking at a conference organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) on 17 November, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat told delegates that concerns about job security in the covid era will only continue as new technologies, increased globalisation and foreign competition, and an increasingly protectionist mentality by employees, impact the nation’s economy.

Heng warned that “the skills of today may not be enough for the jobs of tomorrow” and, referencing the country’s ageing workforce, said, “we will need to better cater to their needs, and enable them to take on new roles”.

The city-state recently announced plans to progressively raise its retirement age to 65 by 2030, with employers able to re-employ workers up to 70.

Heng called on unions to become partners in businesses’ efforts to upskill workers as the country looks to transform 23 industries for the digital age.

“First, you will need to work more directly with companies to transform their businesses, so that their workers can succeed,” he said.

“Second, as the labour market changes, you can serve more workers, by expanding your outreach, and addressing workers’ lifelong needs holistically,” Heng added.

“Third, you will need to garner broader support from our people, to renew the compact for our workers.”

While unions are often perceived to be a thorn in the side of businesses and governments, Singapore’s Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices has allowed for a more collaborative approach between stakeholders, says Clarence Ding, of counsel at Simmons & Simmons.

“Collaboration between unions and employers is mutually beneficial,” says Ding. “For too long, industrial relations have been perceived as a zero-sum game where companies benefit at the expense of the wellbeing of their employees.

“The Singapore government has put in place various initiatives to underscore the importance of a symbiotic relationship between employers and employees, and these programmes have generally been successful,” he adds.

“Based on my observations, companies are less hesitant to engage with employees and unions around upskilling their workforce, and some of them have even taken the initiative to develop bespoke programmes of their own.”

Fortunes intertwined

Singapore’s deputy leader said the fortunes of employers and employees were intertwined as “better workers enable companies to be more competitive, and more competitive companies can invest in their workers and pay them better”.

The Little Red Dot has already introduced Company Training Committees (CTCs) tasked with identifying the skills and training needed by workers to support their company’s strategic vision and to keep up with industry changes.

Heng revealed almost 800 CTCs have been formed to date and have been critical in driving companies’ adoption of new technology.

“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,” he said.

With workers around the globe concerned about increased workforce automation, Heng said workers need to learn new skills that will prepare them for roles in the “post-transformation” economy.

“The learning needs of our workers have evolved. Increasingly, workers are looking beyond job-specific training,” he added. “They want to learn and develop more broadly, and they have more diverse interests.”

Labour shortages

Referencing “detractors” who play on the “fears and anxieties” of Singaporeans, Heng said: “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.” 

Heng argued that the inbound migration of foreign workers with the right skills can complement local workforces and enable Singaporean businesses to better compete at a global level, creating more local jobs in the process.

To assuage Singaporeans’ concerns over the influx of foreign workers, earlier this year, the government announced plans to tighten the criteria for work pass holders. The government hopes these changes will result in more local talent being hired by multinationals.

“Instead of reacting in fear, tripartite partners saw that the multinationals brought the chance to learn new skills, create new jobs, and build an ecosystem of opportunities for our local enterprises,” says Heng.

Ding says: “While multinationals need to inculcate their local workforce with the corporate culture and ethos of the organisation, this cannot come at the expense of disregarding the peculiarities about the way labour relations should be conducted in Singapore.

“Thankfully, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat recognised that this cuts both ways, and it also extends to the labour movement, recognising that foreign investment and foreign manpower often go hand-in-hand, especially as Singapore still struggles with a skills gap.”