“In a joint press release yesterday, the tripartite partners stressed on the need for companies to maintain a strong Singaporean core and help workers who have been displaced” (Retrenchment Should Be Last Resort, Companies Told, TODAY).
Suggestions for companies to redeploy workers, to have a shorter work week, or to introduce a flexible wage system “before turning to retrenchment as a last resort” (May 25, TODAY) may be well-intentioned, but they do little to ease the problems of companies which are restructuring. And in fact, these arrangements for excess manpower could do more harm than good if the employees find themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, and it is not clear whether the tripartite partners – the Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore National Employers Federation, and the National Trades Union Congress – have identified more structural problems and corresponding policies “amid a challenging business environment”.
The cost-saving arrangements could do more harm than good, since employees are likely to receive pay cuts, when it may be more practical to seek employment elsewhere. In this vein, the suggestions by the tripartite partners seem to benefit the employers more than the employees. These tripartite partners suggest that “affected workers should be sent for training” if a no-pay leave period is implemented, yet it has not been established whether the workers – perhaps under the SkillsFuture movement, for instance – would have to fork out money on their own, or if the training would necessarily be useful. Again, it therefore falls on the tripartite partners to justify how their proposed guidelines will benefit affected workers.
Proposals such as career guidance and advice as well as the strengthening of placement agencies could feature. The tripartite partners call for companies to help displaced workers, even though the former appears to have no incentives to do so.
In the bigger picture, it should fall on the government to go beyond platitudes and to identify errant companies. Calling on companies to treat retrenchment as a last resort or to do so “in a responsible and sensitive manner” will not be constructive, unless there is compliance. It would thus be helpful to find out from affected Singaporeans the assistance they were given, and if they were notified about their retrenchment within a reasonable period of time. Other information should include the disbursement of retrenchment benefits stipulated in employment contracts, and the time needed to secure another employment. And in the longer term if there is a consistent uptick in the number of retrenchment exercises, pointing to deeper economic problems, then broader measures must be identified and implemented.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.