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May Day Message 2021 by Minister for Manpower Mrs Josephine Teo

It has been a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Internationally, there are still many uncertainties. Recurrent waves of infection have caused repeated lockdowns. The roll out of vaccine programmes has been uneven. Against the backdrop of continued geopolitical tensions and technological disruptions, business and workers have had to reinvent themselves.   

The Government’s commitment of nearly $100 billion through five Budgets in 2020 have helped cushion the impact of COVID-19, and laid a strong foundation for recovery. Through the Jobs Support Scheme, SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, and Jobs Growth Incentive, many more workers have been able to stay employed. By now, local employment has rebounded to and surpassed pre-COVID levels. Unemployment has also eased steadily.  

Strong spirit of tripartism cushioned COVID-19’s impact

In Singapore, we are fortunate that the Government’s efforts were complemented by the strong spirit of tripartism. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Singapore was able to address the many challenging workplace and workforce issues that arose by leveraging the healthy relationship that tripartite partners have built over the years. 

The tripartite partners worked closely to deal decisively with difficult employment issues such as the implementation of cost-cutting measures and retrenchments. Our unions were prepared to share the burden with employers to help them tide over enormous challenges. 

As a key member of the National Wages Council, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) called on employers and workers to rally together to sustain businesses and save jobs. Where employers have exhausted ways of cutting business costs in other areas, the unions worked with employers on necessary measures to manage excess manpower, including wage cuts necessary to avoid retrenchments. Employers too helped to preserve jobs and maintain a strong Singaporean Core even if they had to restructure.

We have seen how it was not straight-forward for countries to get tripartite consensus on crisis measures.  For instance, in France, unions called for a nationwide strike to denounce the French Government’s pandemic response, disrupting essential services for many citizens.  

Time and again, NTUC has exemplified the value of constructive unionism.  During SARS, the Labour Movement worked with the SARS-affected industries to help them stay afloat and save jobs. For instance, they convinced hotel workers to accept no-pay leave to preserve jobs. In the 2008 global financial crisis, in response to the growing retrenchment, the Government introduced SPUR-Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience. NTUC worked with the employers to send their excess workers for training under SPUR. This not only helped to save jobs, but also ensured that the workers’ skills remained relevant.  

In the wake of last year’s COVID-19 crisis, NTUC stepped up once again.  

Apart from helping many workers through NTUC’s Job Security Council and Company Training Committees, it launched the NTUC Care Fund (COVID-19) to provide one-off $300 financial assistance to distressed union members. The NTUC Training Fund (SEPs) was introduced to support Self-Employed Persons (SEPs) in deepening or acquiring new skills and earning an allowance during their downtime. NTUC also took on the laborious task of administering the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme. 

These initiatives, together with NTUC’s ability to work closely with unions, workers, employers and the Government to implement changes quickly, helped cushion the impact of the crisis. 

Strengthening Singapore’s unique brand of tripartism 

Going forward, two key principles underpin how Singapore can continue to fortify our unique brand of tripartism.  

The first is for the Government to always seek alignment of interests for unions and employers. Tougher times inevitably test our ability to be pro-worker and pro-business at the same time, and yet, it is crucial that we preserve the trust that was carefully nurtured over decades.  

Second, it is in our collective interest to identify opportunities that enable both businesses and workers to emerge stronger from the crisis. For example, with the greater recognition of our essential workers, we are pushing resolutely ahead to expand coverage of the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), an NTUC innovation. The Tripartite Workgroup on Lower-Wage Workers has outlined how PWM will benefit many more workers.  We also welcome NTUC’s strong commitment to set the pace, through early adoption by their Social Enterprises, such as NTUC Foodfare and NTUC FairPrice. 

NTUC continues to evolve and remain relevant

As a key partner in Singapore’s distinctive tripartism model, NTUC has been instrumental to the nation’s progress. During the Modernization Seminar in 1969 organised by the Labour Movement, NTUC decided on a collaborative approach that changed the course of history in our nation’s industrial, economic and social development. From then on, NTUC co-partnered the Government and employers to build a progressive and prosperous Singapore. 

Over the years, NTUC has worked closely with the Government and employers to improve skills and raise productivity, in order to sustain wage growth for our workers. NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) was also established in 2008 to assist in jobs placement and skills training to “Make Every Worker a Better Worker”. NTUC also took a pragmatic approach, agreeing with tripartite partners to introduce the concept of re-employment in Singapore to augment the statutory minimum retirement age.

Today, as NTUC celebrates its 60th anniversary, it continues to champion workers’ causes through updated approaches. For example, its Job Security Council is leveraging the Labour Movement’s extensive networks to help members who are displaced from work move quickly into hiring companies or sectors. Critically, its major push to form Company Training Committees will bridge reskilling efforts for workers and business transformation plans. 

Together with employers and the Government, NTUC is building a more resilient workforce that is ready for the future. It continues to reinvent itself to be relevant to members and partners. Let us recognise NTUC’s sustained achievements over six decades, and re-commit ourselves to the unique brand of tripartism that enables Singapore to emerge stronger as one united people!   

Happy May Day to all!