Madam Speaker, I rise in support of the Budget that recognizes the contributions of our Pioneer Generation and helps to build in place long term measures to address the future healthcare, retirement and employment needs of Singaporeans. It is heartening to note that the Government has supported Labour Movement’s call for higher CPF contribution rates in particular for older workers. I am pleased that the Budget seeks to establish a fair and equitable society by effecting various social transfers to the lower and middle income Singaporeans, such as increasing bursary amounts, subsidies for Medishield Life, specialist outpatient clinics, GST vouchers and rebates on conservancy fees. The Government has also taken a wise decision at this juncture to set aside the $8 billion Pioneer Generation Fund for the Pioneer Generation Package. This provides assurance to our senior citizens for their lifetime medical needs without having to place an excessive onus on successive generations. Many Professional, Managers and Executives (PMEs) I met were glad income taxes and GST were not raised as these directly affect them.
As I was listening intently to the budget speech, I scrutinised the budget from the eyes of a PME. I listed out what the government has in this budget fleshed out for our PMEs, otherwise known as the middle-income or the sandwiched class. In my speech, I would therefore like to address the concerns of PMEs and how this Budget can support them in a tangible way. I would also be elaborating on the efforts that NTUC has embarked on and will be embarking on to support the PMEs, primarily through the 4P framework. Finally, it is also imperative for us to understand how we can raise the productivity of companies and workers (including PMEs) so that we can share the gains and bring about real wage increases in the next lap.
NTUC’s 4Ps for PMEs - Protection, Progression, Placement & Privileges
My fellow Labour MPs Mr Heng Chee How and Mr Zainal Sapari have shared about the 4P framework by NTUC. The 4Ps of Protection, Progression, Placement and Privileges serves to underline and anchor the four key thrusts of NTUC and the Labour Movement for all collars of workers. NTUC has been supporting the PMEs in multiple ways for the past three years using this 4P framework. With high costs of living and mortgages to pay, our PMEs’ greatest concern is job security and lack of income growth. PMEs I met have shared with me, every single provision that comes from the Government and the added voice and help from NTUC will be much needed and appreciated boosters. The Budget measures announced complements well with NTUC’s 4P focus and seek to address many PMEs’ needs and concerns.
In the area of Protection, NTUC, with the support of our tripartite partners has advocated and brought about the extension of scope in the Employment Act for PMEs earning up to $4500. This was a breakthrough for us as this was kept sacred since the Act was promulgated in 1968. From next month, PMEs will have added protection and recourse when they are terminated or when they are unfairly dismissed. There is also protection for PMEs with regards to salary payments, unauthorised deductions, public holiday entitlements and statutory paid sick leave. The amendments will see us providing added protection to more than 300,000 PMEs in Singapore.
Notwithstanding the changes, at our PME Centre, we are still receiving enquiries from PMEs outside the scope of the Employment Act (i.e. above $4500 monthly salary) when they have workplace issues such as termination and other workplace issues. No issues when they are from unionised companies. Even if they are union members, they are mostly from non-unionised companies and are unable to unionise the company overnight to obtain full union representation. Likewise, our current tripartite mediation framework also covers PME union members who earn up to $4500 only. In light of this, I advocate for raising the bar of our existing tripartite mediation framework in both width and depth to cover all workers and go beyond all issues outside the scope of the Employment Act. This tripartite mediation process should exert more teeth to ensure mediated outcomes have an effect on parties. By the same token, this tripartite mediation process can be complemented with a tripartite employment tribunal so that disputes that are unable to be resolved at tripartite mediation can be expeditiously adjudicated .
NTUC and our affiliated unions will continue to ride this wave of changes to protect our workers especially PMEs. One union matter which I have handled relating to the protection of PMEs is the non-payment of retrenchment benefits by NuTune Singapore Pte Ltd to 34 PMEs formerly employed by the Company. The executives have to be represented individually by the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) after the Company defaulted on the payments. After the Industrial Arbitration Court hearing, the Court ordered the Company to pay an amount of $1.79 million in monthly instalments to the workers through the Union, UWEEI. Without the strong advocacy role played by UWEEI and NTUC, the court award would not have been possible. This serves to demonstrate that no matter how harmonious industrial relations are; when jobs are lost through restructuring, Unions will be there by the side of workers, in this case PMEs, to take care of their welfare and interests. Similarly, when Five Stars Tours suddenly closed its doors in January this year, the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union swung into action by providing vouchers for the affected union members to tide over the festive season. These are but two examples. The responsiveness of NTUC, our Unions and especially our union leaders and industrial relations officers to these two retrenchment exercises is testimony of our determination in extending the same workplace protection to PMEs. In view of economic peak and troughs, we also see workers affected by company liquidation and workers are sometimes left in the lurch as in the above cases.
For the protection of our mature workers (including PMEs), NTUC has lobbied tirelessly for the increase of CPF contribution rates and enhancement of medical safety nets. I would like to compliment the Government’s bold move to increase the CPF contribution rates for Medisave by employers for all workers by 1%. For mature workers between 50-55 years old, employers’ contribution will be raised by 1% whilst employees contribute another 0.5%. In short, mature workers including PMEs can look forward to an overall increase in CPF contribution rates by 2.5% across their Ordinary, Special and Medisave Accounts. Those between 55 to 65 years old will also have their Employer contribution rates increased by 0.5% making it 1.5% in total.
The issue of quality and affordable public healthcare has emerged as one of the top concerns of Our Singapore Conversation survey amongst 4,000 participants across all income brackets. We know that many of our elderly and mature workers have the constant worry in their mind not being able to afford the increasing healthcare costs in Singapore. I am happy to see that our Government has taken concrete steps to allay those fears. By the same token, NTUC will do our best to take action in the areas of employment and employability of middle-aged and mature PMEs who face the pressures of being in the sandwiched generation.
For the sandwiched generation of PMEs taking care of their parents, in-laws or grandparents, this Budget is providing a cushioning effect with an increase in parent relief. Likewise, the Pioneer Generation Package will also help to alleviate their burdens of healthcare bills of their parents, in-laws and grandparents. This is done through Medisave annual top-ups from the Government, being covered with Medishield Life, coming under the umbrella of the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS) topped with higher subsidies at polyclinics and specialist outpatient clinics.
PMEs I spoke to have shared with me that in reality, career progression does not hinge on superior job knowledge or mastery alone. They may not be productive at work for various reasons such as the lack of management support and recognition, no work-life balance or in the worst case scenario being bullied. NTUC has thus started a series of legal primers, Crossroad series, webinars and learning conferences such as the Future Leaders Summit to motivate them and provide guidance to navigate in their careers. The issue of employee disenfranchisement has deeper connotations for productivity and employee well-being. Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace report found that only 9% of workers in Singapore were engaged - up to 76% were "not engaged" while 15% were "actively disengaged". More can be done to engage our local employees. I would like to call on employers to invest more into work-life and employee engagement programmes. They will find that happier employees would be more productive as well. It could be useful for the Government to co-fund employee engagement programmes for companies which have genuine difficulties to do so.
In pushing for productivity, NTUC has been advocating for innovations and job redesign bringing about Easier, Safer and Smarter (ESS for short) ways of doing one’s job. I want to highlight to this House that ESS is not just mechanisation and use of technology for simple laborious tasks. It cuts across all sectors and all levels of the hierarchy. In my capacity as Executive Secretary of the Healthcare Services Employees’ Union, I have witnessed how ESS has taken shape in the public healthcare sector which is facing a manpower crunch. I recently paid a visit to the central pharmacy in Singapore General Hospital. I saw for myself first-hand how a group of PMEs, in this case, Pharmacists and Pharmacy technicians embrace technology and used state-of-the art RFID tagging and automated system to eradicate errors, enhance safety and operational efficiency at the pharmacy. Over at the dispensing counters of Singapore General Hospital’s (SGH) renovated Outpatient Pharmacy, the pharmacist just needs to turn around, pick up the baskets of packed prescription medications, and is assured that they will contain the right medication ready for dispensing to the patient due to the intelligent Automated RFID Prescription Drug Delivery System. In the past, this packing process is labour intensive (involving many pharmacists) and prone to human errors which could have dire consequences. The incorporation of automation and technology will provide real time tracking of processing status via RFID, complemented by LED guided picking of medication through barcode scanning, minimizing the possibility of medication errors. With the implementation of the RFID conveyor system, the back-end prescription filling process is automated end to end.
It clearly demonstrates that PMEs too, can play a part and be part of the entire productivity drive in every organization.
In another example of how Lean Quality Management and “Kaizen” to improve productivity and enhance customer service, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s (KTPH) Accident & Emergency Department has set up a one-stop pharmacy within the hospital’s Day Surgery Centre and the Acute Care and Emergency (A&E) Centre. Seventy per cent of patients with non-life threatening conditions can be seen within an hour as a result and they do not have to jam the prescriptions queue at the main pharmacy. The KTPH’s Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs) who have degree and higher qualifications in Nursing also take on some of the functions performed by doctors including attending to patients requiring continuing care and prescribing certain medicines, thus reducing the waiting time for patients. This is yet another fine example of PMEs being positively impacted by productivity efforts. Particularly in the services sector, I see the need for us to not just be High-Touch and Low-Tech or Low-Touch and High-Tech but aim to be High-Touch and High-Tech!
Generating productivity growth is the only sustainable way to increase our value-add and grow our incomes. In this year’s Budget, I am glad that the Government has paid special attention in supporting the SMEs with the extension of the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) Scheme, creating a new PIC+ tier, launching the ICT for Productivity and Growth, etc.
I would like to know how many of these companies have incorporated pay rises for workers after receiving PIC. As we are setting another $3.6 billion for the next three years for PIC and PIC+, I hope that gain sharing can be part of the criteria of PIC and PIC+. I would like to seriously urge employers to share the profits/gains from productivity with their workers.
Moving on to Placement, e2i has conducted 35 career fairs and placed about 4200 PMEs in 2013 targeting selected PMEs sectors such as information technology, finance, accounting, etc. There will be more concerted efforts to develop more targeted programmes such as the “Step-In” series for various disciplines such as human resource, marketing for fresh graduates. There are also Place and Train schemes for professionals seeking mid-career switches. Examples would be accounts, audit and marine engineering. I believe NTUC and our tripartite partners can do together and do more in this respect.
Some of our affected PME members have benefited from the placement schemes set in place by e2i. Citing the earlier example of NuTune, when Jane Teo, a mature PME (UWEEI member and branch chair of NuTune) was laid off from the Company, UWEEI and e2i stepped in to place her in the Executive Workshop and subsequently hired by a company as an executive not too long after. However, unlike this case, mature PMEs I spoke to have lamented on ‘ageism’ amongst employers in Singapore. I submit that this has to change. Employers must change their mindsets. Mature employees too must embrace change and adopt a positive mindset as well.
I am pleased to note in DPM’s Budget speech the Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) has been effective in helping low-wage workers. With the ceiling up to $4,000, it would already have been helpful for junior and mid-level PME jobs. We could perhaps consider linking WCS with the placement schemes run by e2i to help more of mid-career PMEs and those affected by restructuring to be placed into new jobs created by employers under this scheme.
For a start, NTUC has started a PME centre offering the 4Ps at e2i on 2 January this year, we will be opening another two centres before May Day this year. One will be in the heart of the CBD where many PMEs work physically and the other will be a virtual PME centre where many situate themselves and spend most of their waking hours in.
Madam Speaker, I would like to support the Budget motion and commend it for being Worker-Centric and most importantly Singaporean-centric. It addresses the short-term pains of companies and businesses in this tight labour market yet at the same time lay the foundation with a long term plan and vision so that the efforts in restructuring and transforming the Singapore economy will ultimately bear fruit and benefit our people, the people that come after us and their future.