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Budget Debate 2023: NTUC Members of Parliament on Better Wages, Welfare and Work Prospects

Nine Labour Members of Parliament, one voice, five key areas of importance.
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23 Feb 2023
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By NTUC Newsroom

Nine NTUC Labour Members of Parliament (LMPs) spoke in Parliament on 22 and 23 February 2023 to air their views on Budget 2023.

The LMPs spoke up on five key issues, including expanding the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) beyond the coverage of low-wage workers, supporting the middle-income and sandwiched group, enhancing retirement adequacy, and giving better access to caregiving and more support for displaced workers.

Other topics include more training opportunities and better support for freelancers.

Progressive Wages for All Workers

In his speech, NTUC Operations & Mobilisation Division Director Fahmi Aliman shared that efforts to uplift lower-wage workers have borne fruit with the PWM.

Mr Fahmi highlighted that the PWM had been implemented in the cleaning, security, landscape, and lift and escalator sectors since NTUC mooted it in 2012. The model has also been introduced in retail, food services and waste management and the occupations of administrators and drivers.

He added that the PWM would benefit around 135,000 lower-wage workers or almost half of the total number currently in the workforce.

Mr Fahmi said: “With PWM, workers can be assured that they will not only receive a minimum wage corresponding to their sector and occupation but also defined career pathways that would ensure that their wages increase as their skills and responsibilities increase as well.”

The PWM and other progressive wage measures like the Local Qualifying Salary (LQS) and the Progressive Wage Mark accreditation will improve the lives of up to 94 per cent of the lower-wage workforce.

To help workers in the long term, Mr Fahmi called on the Government to do an annual review of the LQS to ensure that wages keep pace with wage convergence targets. He suggested that the National Wages Council incorporates the LQS review into their annual progressive wage growth recommendations for lower-wage workers.

He said: “While the implementation of LQS is necessary to protect local workers and prevent the displacement of low-wage jobs by foreign workers, it can also potentially be problematic for lower-wage workers because the current amount of $1,400 is much lower than the P20 wage levels of around $2,800 in 2022.

“Further, most of the progressive wages are also pegged at higher amounts, ranging from $1,500 for a data entry clerk to $3,330 for a principal lift & escalator specialist. PWMs are also designed such that their wages are increased at an agreed-upon rate annually.”

Meanwhile, NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Desmond Tan assured workers they will “not only receive a minimum wage corresponding to their sector and occupation but also defined career pathways that would ensure that their wages increase as their skills and responsibilities increase as well.”

For example, Mr Tan cited that landscape workers’ wages have increased by 3.5 per cent per year since the sector’s PWM launch, and this will continue to increase.

“NTUC wants higher wages and higher employment rates for workers,” added Mr Tan.

“Some studies have shown the downsides of minimum wage, including dis-employment, and the perverse outcome that a minimum wage might become maximum wage,” he said, adding that it would be a concern for Singapore’s small economy.

More Cost-of-Living Support to Middle-Income

Labour MPs also spoke on the rising cost of living and the need to support the middle-income group.

NTUC Vice-President Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab said that this year’s Budget represents the Government’s promise to help Singaporeans stave off the rising cost of living.

He added that he is grateful for the Government’s support towards sandwiched households.

Mr Abdul Samad also said that the help for Singaporeans this year is unique because the Government is focusing on expanding the available support further.

NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Desmond Choo concurred and said that the Government’s Cost of Living support packages would help Singaporeans cope better with higher inflation.

“Critical to coping with inflation is to ensure wages keep pace with rising prices. Inflation is likely to stay for quite some time. The measures announced in this Budget to improve productivity structurally are especially important,” Mr Choo said.

NTUC Enterprise Group CEO Seah Kian Peng called the Budget 2023 “an inspired political statement that spells out duties for the rich, welfare for the poor and opportunities for all.”

He added: “Budget 2023, with its high focus on redistribution, especially for those most vulnerable among us, shows that there are free lunches for those who need them.”

However, Mr Seah asked how, with the Budget’s greater welfare provision, the self-reliance and ambition of Singapore’s pioneering years can remain strong.

He added that it is essential to keep debates on this balance both vigorous and honest so that the Government knows when and where subsidies are needed.

Meanwhile, NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong said he is heartened to know that the Government recognised inflationary concerns and will provide significant cash assistance under the Assurance Package.

“During my house visits over the weekend, many residents told me that they appreciated the various help packages, in particular, the CDC vouchers, which come in very handy as they purchase their daily necessities in the neighbourhood,” he added.

However, Mr Yong also said that special attention is needed towards the vulnerable who struggle to adapt to higher interest rates.

“Our sandwiched class often face a financial squeeze due to the need to care for elderly parents and young children,” he explained.

He also asked how the Government intends to help the sandwiched class who bought homes at lower interest rates, only to be refinanced at current high-interest rates.

Ensuring Retirement Adequacy

NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Heng Chee How said that through the Labour Movement’s #EveryWorkerMatters Conversation exercise, mature workers cited retirement adequacy and healthcare costs as their top concerns.

Mr Heng noted the progress made for retirement adequacy so far. These include raising the retirement and re-employment ages to 63 and 68, respectively, upping CPF contribution rates for senior workers above 55 and increasing the CPF contribution ceiling from $6,000 to $8,000.

He said: “NTUC wants to work closely with Government in this area to see what additional innovations can be arrived that can yield practical and sustainable improvements and to help the Government and the whole of society to rally our workers.”

He called for other recommendations by the Tripartite Workgroup on Strengthening Support for Older Workers to be implemented at a suitable juncture.

He said: “This process will take time because there is a need to consider economic and business realities, the experience of the first tranche implementation, and what would constitute a viable balance and pace.  

“Hence, while we need not rush, should not rush, we should make sure that there is sufficient traction along this journey, and that such tripartite discussions be convened in due course, in good time.”

Mr Heng pointed out that his earlier Budget Debate 2019 call to have more part-time work options was supported by the Government’s extension of the Part-time Re-employment Grant to 2025.

He also thanked the Government for other supportive measures, such as extending the Senior Employment Credit.

Considering the stronger acceptance of flexible work arrangements (FWA) due to the pandemic, he urged the Government to strengthen its support for companies to use such arrangements to augment its workforce.

Mr Heng also raised the issue of ageism at the workplace and urged tripartite partners to do more to tackle the problem.

He shared: “Beyond individual cases and claims of age discrimination, I hope the tripartite partners can work closely to leverage in-company mechanisms to proactively ensure that senior workers are given due consideration and opportunity for training and skills-building.”

One way the tripartite partners have encouraged fairer treatment is through the NTUC-initiated Company Training Committees (CTCs).

Mr Heng said the CTCs “serve this purpose of ensuring fair and productive conduct of training.”

More Support for Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities

Meanwhile, building a Singapore made for families means boosting support for workers with caregiving responsibilities, most of whom happen to be women.

NTUC U SME and U Women and Family Director Yeo Wan Ling emphasised the importance of enhancing job inclusivity and reimagining how we work by adopting more family-friendly practices, such as FWA.

Ms Yeo likewise highlighted the urgent need to provide more targeted support and focused action on tackling key barriers and scoping out solutions for industries that face greater hurdles in adopting FWAs.

“During the job redesign process, companies may face manpower crunches and need help through redesign consultancy or facilitation. For this, the Labour Movement can work with the Government on a combination of grant support, roadmaps and specialised consultancies through a Job Redesign Support Package,” said Ms Yeo.

She also called for employers to partner with NTUC in designing and adopting positive ‘returnship’ programmes that boost the confidence of women returnees and help ease them back into the workplace, ultimately promoting employee retention.

Greater Support for Displaced Workers

NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay called for more Government support for PMEs as they take on the challenges of a rapidly evolving global landscape brought about by digitalisation and the transition towards a greener economy.

He noted that PMEs – particularly those in their 40s to 60s – typically have more dependents to care for, requiring more time to get re-employed when retrenched, and often suffer wage loss when re-entering the job market.

To counter these issues, Mr Tay has proposed for the Government to provide these workers with financial support to tide them over periods of unemployment; to facilitate employment and training to help workers seize new opportunities; to allow local PMEs fair access to roles to be able to compete with foreign PMEs.

“Our local workers, and especially mature PMEs, will continue to face volatility and uncertainty. What matters is that we remain resilient, seek out opportunities amidst these disruptions, and adapt to ride the waves of change,” he said.

Safer Workplaces for All

NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong called for the Government to consider making permanent some of the Heightened Safety Period (HSP) requirements that have been put in force to curb workplace injuries and fatalities.

Introduced in September 2022, Mr Yong said that the HSP showed promising results during its initial implementation but has since seen a rise in workplace accidents.

“I would like to urge the Government to seriously consider making permanent some of the HSP requirements, such as higher penalties for WSH breaches so that we send a strong message that every worker deserves to return home safely at the end of each workday,” he said.

Mr Yong also urged all companies, regardless of size, to work with NTUC and its affiliated unions to improve workplace safety standards.

Better Protection for Freelancers

In her speech, Ms Yeo also pointed out that self-employed persons (SEPs), such as freelance drivers, face rising fuel costs and a lack of training time to improve their income.

To enable SEPs to have better income, Ms Yeo urged the Government to support the following calls:

“First, expand the training allowance for self-sponsored trainees to include SEPs, so that they can afford a few days off to upskill.

“Second, consider deeper support for SEPs upskilling in critical skills such as digitalisation and digitisation – this is especially so for SEPs working in sectors where there have been technological disruptions, such as the media and transport industries.  

“Third, develop skills frameworks for SEPs in crafts and trades-based professions such as for photographers, videographers, plumbers, mechanics and incorporating apprenticeship programmes into such training frameworks with Government support.”

She also called on the Government to consider providing GST rebates for SEPs, who are not GST-registered, to buffer the cost increase.

On the GST increase, she called for added support for taxi drivers by co-sharing with operators or for operators to bear the full load.

To provide a fairer way for artists to charge the correct fee, she called for the Government to incorporate apprenticeship programmes into training frameworks.

Ms Yeo also encouraged Government service buyers to award projects based on the value of the frameworks.

To help SEPs achieve more stable cash flow despite their irregular income, the labour MP urged the Government to increase the relief limit for business expenses and allow items such as insurance to be claimed under it.