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Speech by Senior Parliamentary Secretary Low Yen Ling for Committee of Supply on Second Supplementary Estimates 2020

Introduction

1. Mister Chairman, as we go through these very challenging times, the Government is committed to protecting livelihoods and sustaining businesses. The support provided through the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets is targeted to help keep businesses viable and workers employed, so that they can tide over this crisis and recover more quickly as the economy restarts.

2. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM), with support from the 4 Budgets, seeks to achieve this in three ways:

a. ensuring fair support for all workers – both for employees and self-employed persons (or SEPs),

b. championing fair employment practices, and

c. promoting mental well-being in our workplaces. 

Ensuring Fair Support for All Workers

3. The Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) has cushioned the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the labour market by helping employers to hold on to their employees and continue paying their salaries, even during the Circuit Breaker period.  

Support for SEPs

4. We introduced the SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) to help Singaporean SEPs with less means and family support tide over this difficult period. Although SIRS is means-tested, the Government has taken into consideration that these are unprecedented times. 

a. For comparison, usually about 50,000 SEPs each year receive Workfare. In other words, they are assessed to need more help. 

b. SIRS has now benefitted over 120,000 SEPs – more than double the usual number of Workfare recipients.

5. We understand that many SEPs have seen their incomes fall. Nonetheless, the income criterion serves as a proxy for the ability to save and therefore the likelihood of ability to tide through periods of less earnings.

a. It should be noted that about 80% of personal income tax payers earn below the SIRS criterion of $100,000 a year. In other words, one would have to be in the top 20% of taxpayers to exceed the SIRS criterion.

6. As for the Annual Value (AV) of property criterion, it serves as a proxy for wealth and family support. The Government has similarly sought to cover more people under SIRS. The AV criterion of $21,000 covers about 9 in 10 owner-occupied residential public and private properties.

7. We appreciate that some of the SEPs who exceed the AV criterion may not themselves own these higher-end properties. Rest assured, they can still appeal to be considered for SIRS.

8. We will work with NTUC to assess the circumstances on a case-by-case basis and ensure that the scheme helps SEPs who most need it. Even if an appellant is not eligible for SIRS, we will link him or her up with other agencies like the Social Service Offices (SSOs) to offer other forms of assistance.

Working with Partners on Government Schemes

9. In administering schemes and programmes such as SIRS, the Government has always partnered various like-minded organisations to better serve Singaporeans and our businesses. This is a key feature of Tripartism and has served us well.

a. For instance, we work with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) and Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) to administer the Work-Life Grant (WLG).

b. Likewise, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) is our appointed programme manager for SGUnited Traineeships, working with host companies to review and approve the scope and development plans of their proposed traineeships. 

c. Other government agencies such as Enterprise Singapore (ESG) have also partnered with Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) to administer schemes for companies.

10. In governing these schemes, the responsible Ministries determine the policy parameters, including the eligibility criteria. The Ministries set clear boundaries within which our partners must operate, and any exceptions would require the Ministry’s approval. 

Classification of SEPs

11. Over the past years, several MPs, including Associate Professor Walter Theseira and members of the public have also raised concerns that some employees could have been misclassified as SEPs, and as a result, not received CPF contributions from their employers and other employee benefits such as leave entitlement.

12. In determining whether an individual is an employee or SEP, the Singapore courts consider factors such as the degree of control exerted by the company and its ability to decide on the hours of work. However, given the wide variety of work arrangements today, each case must be evaluated based on the specific circumstances. The Government applies a similar approach to the courts when assessing the employment status of an individual.

13. To ensure employees are not misclassified as SEPs and denied their statutory employment benefits, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) follows up on complaints received and ensures that employers make rectifications where needed.

a. For example, arising from feedback from adjunct teaching associates a few years ago, MOM worked with the autonomous universities to ensure that CPF contributions and leave entitlements were provided to those working as employees.

b. I understand that during the Circuit Breaker period, adjunct teaching associates have continued to receive full salaries from their universities, which are supported by the JSS pay-outs.

Championing Fair Employment Practices

14. The Government has provided substantial support through the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to help employers retain and pay their local workers. DPM Heng shared that the JSS amounted to $23.5 billion, protecting 1.9 million jobs for Singaporeans. Employers should act responsibly and fairly, ensuring that local workers are given wages even if they are unable to work.

15. I want to assure Ms Anthea Ong that the Government takes a very serious view of irresponsible, unfair or fraudulent employment practices, including false reporting of workers’ CPF payments by employers to obtain higher JSS pay-outs. 

a. We take a whole-of-Government approach to identify such fraudulent cases. As highlighted in the media release by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) on Wednesday, there are severe penalties for any attempt to abuse the JSS. 

b. Workers need not be afraid to come forward to report any infringement of employment laws. The Employment Act protects them from wrongful dismissal by employers, especially those who seek to punish workers for exercising their rights. 

c. Employers who wrongfully dismiss their workers may be ordered to pay compensation or to reinstate workers to their former jobs. Errant employers may also see a withdrawal of Government-paid employment support or the suspension of their work pass privileges. MOM takes all feedback on employment law infringements seriously. 

16. During this difficult period, workers and employers have to work even more closely together than ever before and strive to maintain open channels of communication. As MP Louis Ng pointed out, employees may need greater work flexibility to deal with the disruptions that arise during Covid-19. 

17. Likewise, MP Desmond Choo and MP Sylvia Lim raised good points regarding the challenges that workers, in particular women, face, and how FWAs can benefit employers, employees and the society in the long run. 

a. FWAs help workers better their balance commitments at home and at work, and enable women to remain in the workforce, gain work experience, earn higher wages and assume leadership roles. MOM has been working with the tripartite partners to improve workers’ access to FWAs, such as by providing support via the Work Life Grant (WLG) and recognising progressive employers through the Tripartite Standard on FWAs. 

b. As a result of Covid-19, many more companies are working from home now and are benefitting from FWAs. We will seize the opportunity to continue the momentum and ensure that work-from-home arrangements are sustained beyond the COVID-19 period. This will not only strengthen business resilience; it will also better support work-life harmony for all workers.

Ensuring Workers’ Mental Well-being 

18. As more businesses gradually resume operations, workers will take some time to adjust to the new normal, as well as different working arrangements. Since the start of COVID-19, there has been many changes and adjustments. We understand that workers may face additional stress, and some may have mental health challenges. I agree with Ms Anthea Ong that we must look into our workers’ mental health as we also seek to protect as many jobs as possible during this challenging period. 

19. Ms Ong had suggested that we consider introducing additional requirements to qualify for JSS pay-outs. However, the JSS is a temporary scheme designed to help companies save local jobs during this period of economic uncertainty. Adding too many conditions would only make it more difficult for employers to benefit from the scheme or inadvertently cause a delay in employers getting the urgent help they need. Jobs may be lost if employers do not get timely support. 

20. Instead, we have been working on other ways to encourage employers to implement progressive practices and workplace adjustments to take care of workers’ mental health needs in the workplace. 

a. During the earlier COS March, MOM announced that we will formulate a Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being to educate employers on basic mental health knowledge and make available resources to help them. We will work with tripartite partners to evaluate the possibility of including an Employee Assistance Programme and insurance coverage for mental health as part of the upcoming Tripartite Advisory, which will be finalised in the second half of this year.

b. We are also working closely with various Government agencies and the Labour Movement to provide our employers with resources that can support their workers’ mental well-being.

Concluding Remarks

21. Chairman, what I have just shared are some ways in which we are supporting workers and employers to overcome the challenges arising from COVID-19. During the Circuit Breaker, we have all  come across many heartening stories of how businesses and Singaporeans are rallying behind each other as one community. As we slowly reopen the economy and transit to a new normal, I am confident that the unity and fortitude of our workers and employers will see us through this crisis and help us emerge stronger together.