Thursday 31 October 2013

Govt to help 3 industries in need of revamp

S'pore will transform retail, logistics and construction sectors: Tharman
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE needs to revamp three industries to ensure they move up the productivity ladder and grow, and yesterday, the Government pledged to help them in their climb.

The three laggards are: retail, logistics and construction.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in identifying them, also said that Singapore will be "as aggressive as it takes" to transform them into not only leaner players but also bigger earners.

Their success, he added, would further fuel Singapore's humming economy.

Mr Tharman, who is also the Finance Minister, was speaking at the opening of a key biennial meeting of union leaders, who will spend the next two days outlining the goals of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for the next two years.

Using a chart, he showed that the changes in store are grounded in a strong foundation.

Singapore's job and income growth in recent years has defied the trend of high unemployment and falling income levels seen in major economies such as the United States and Japan.

In the last five years, Singapore's cumulative real median household income grew by 17.7 per cent while its jobless rate this year is 3 per cent.

In contrast, the US unemployment rate is 7.6 per cent and real median income fell 8.3 per cent.

Singapore, however, cannot rest on its laurels. It needs to continue to grow and ensure that the expansion benefits all Singaporeans. Amid the changes, it also has to maintain social cohesion.

Hence the need to improve productivity, Mr Tharman said as he sketched the improvements lying ahead for the three industries.

The logistics sector is dominated by small players and requires "systemic changes" to raise productivity.

"The use of IT and technologies is an important part of our strategy to raise productivity across the supply chain of logistics, all the way from the front end to the export and import from abroad," said Mr Tharman.

In construction, productivity can be improved through better- designed buildings, he said.

This is being done in other developed countries where construction companies work closely with architects to design buildings that need fewer workers to erect.

Singapore is looking to do the same, with the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) considering changes to require developers to design buildings which can be constructed with fewer workers and efficient technologies and materials.

In retail, the Government is helping retailers to not only improve their bricks-and-mortar shopfronts but also develop online stores to sell to customers here as well as overseas.

Details on the changes in store for the three sectors will be announced later.

Union leaders at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates Conference said workers must be assured that they will benefit from the productivity drive. To do this, employers must protect jobs and raise workers' pay when they upgrade their skills and embrace technology.

Said National Transport Workers' Union president Rosmani Juraini: "Some lower-wage logistics workers hesitate in using technology as they fear their jobs will soon be redundant.

"Employers must convince them this will not happen."

Finding new and more efficient ways to sell
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

COMMERCIAL rentals are rising, workers are difficult to hire and consumers these days are increasingly shopping online.

In short, it is not easy being a bricks-and-mortar retailer. However, some industry players are adopting innovative ways of handling such problems without sacrificing the human touch that is essential to the shopping experience, noted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

And with such leaders paving the way, the industry could achieve significant productivity improvements in years to come.

Mr Tharman made these comments yesterday after a meeting with Wing Tai Retail executives, who shared with him and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin the steps they have taken to boost productivity.

These include getting on social media to better engage their customers and using technology to optimise manpower scheduling.

Efforts such as these have helped the retail sector achieve nominal productivity growth of 3 to 4 per cent every year for three years, Mr Tharman said, adding that retail is faring better than the food and beverage sector.

"But we need significant initiatives of this sort, both in the front and back end - how you win your customers as well as how you improve efficiency," he said.

"You have to look at the whole logistics supply chain too, to see how... the business-to-business relationship is put on a more efficient footing in Singapore."

Since the retail productivity road map was rolled out in April 2011, over 300 retail firms have been supported by the Government for productivity and service upgrading projects, he added.

Construction firms get tips on tapping Govt aid schemes
BCA officials advise companies on how to get help to improve efficiency
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

IN A spartan room lit by fluorescent lights, a group of middle-aged men sit in a row, waiting for their names to be called.

They walk tentatively to a table where officers from the Building Construction Authority (BCA) are seated.

The men, mostly owners of small construction firms, listen intently as the officers talk about government grants aimed at boosting productivity.

Before long, their brows furrow and they look confused.

Mr Tan Lian Guan, managing director of Leong Hin Huat Contractor, asks in Mandarin: "How do I find more about the grants on the Internet? I just don't know where to start."

He says he wants to buy machines which reduce the load on workers at his firm, which specialises in the demolition of buildings.

The BCA officers suggest he buy equipment which can hack walls with less manual labour and advise Mr Tan how to apply for grants which can subsidise the cost of the machines.

This is the construction industry's "meet the people session".

The Singapore Contractors Association Limited (SCAL) and BCA have been organising these meetings since December 2011 to help construction bosses navigate the myriad government schemes they can tap to improve efficiency.

SCAL president Ho Nyok Yong said that bosses of smaller firms are the target audience.

Unlike larger companies, smaller firms do not have designated staff put in charge of looking into various government aid schemes.

Many bosses end up confused.

They also find the information on the schemes hard to digest since it is mostly in English. Most of them are proficient only in Chinese.

"So we thought why not hold regular meetings with BCA. What better way than to hear it from the horse's mouth?" said Dr Ho.

The sessions are growing popular, with around 100 firms having attended them since December 2011. SCAL hopes to reach out to another 200 by holding one session every week by early next year, instead of once a fortnight now.

Dr Ho said more firms are applying for government grants after hearing about them at the meetings.

Some 3,000 construction firms have received $134.6 million from the Government since 2010 to boost productivity.

The meetings, held at SCAL's office in Bukit Merah, are kept informal to make participants more relaxed. They mingle over coffee and snacks while waiting to speak to BCA officers.

Representatives of firms spend about half an hour with each of the two teams of officers.

One team is in charge of talking about employee-upgrading schemes, while the other shares details about government grants which can be used to buy labour-saving equipment.

The bosses speak in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Hokkien as they talk about rising costs because of higher foreign levies and the labour crunch. Officers then suggest solutions.

Some participants are eager to take the advice. Mr Melvin Jee, whose firm Air Bright does electrical installations, said: "As long as the schemes can help me to save cost, I am willing to try."

But other bosses need more convincing.

Mr Lye Kian Siong, director of People's Construction, said his older Indian construction workers are unwilling to attend skill-upgrading courses as they are less educated and not confident of passing the tests.

Husband and wife Lim Sin Ming and Penny Poh, who run a window and door installation firm Aik Heng Contracts and Services, said it was hard to heed BCA's calls to cut down on manpower because their line of business is labour-intensive.

"How can you get a machine to install a window?" said Mr Lim.

But at the end of the meetings, confusion is usually replaced with smiles.

However, some remain worried.

Mr Chew Chon Chua, managing director of Global Excel Construction, said: "I will have to find some way to raise money to buy better machinery. I don't know if I will succeed, but I have to try. If not, I will be left behind."

Pledge to boost pay of low-wage workers
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

THE productivity and pay of cleaners and guards will go up, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has pledged.

He assured an audience of trade unionists yesterday that such low-wage workers will get a raft of help to lift their pay.

He cited examples of cleaners, security guards and landscape workers as needing higher pay.

Office cleaners and security guards earn basic monthly pay of $800, according to the Manpower Ministry's official wage data.

Mr Tharman, who is also the Finance Minister, was speaking at a three-day NTUC conference attended by about 1,100 union leaders and tripartite partners. He backed the union movement's "progressive wage model", unveiled last year, and said it was "already producing results".

The model sets a wage ladder where workers in low-wage jobs can earn higher pay through training and productivity gains.

The Government will support the model with regulations, and by working with employers and unions. "We will make sure the strategy works, and the pay and productivity of cleaners and security guards will go up."

Still, the model has not been all plain sailing. A month ago, the Security Association of Singapore, representing security firms, rebuffed the National Trades Union Congress' bid to raise security guards' pay using the model.

Mr Tharman vowed to help low-wage workers in various ways. They will get help to upgrade their skills and the Government will "be as aggressive as it takes in supporting continuous education and training", he said.

Support schemes for families such as Workfare, ComCare and housing grants will continue. "This is not a small-minded government when it comes to supporting the poor. We have been very active in supporting them where it counts," he said.

"We're the only country, when you look at the bottom 20 per cent of our households, home ownership is 80 per cent."

Children from poor families will get help so "poverty isn't passed from one generation to the next". And help for them may even come before they are born.

Pointing to studies showing underweight children are likely to be less successful in life, he suggested nutritional advice be given to couples and mums-to-be. "Some ways may seem a little crazy... Try them, and see if they work."

However, help for low-wage workers is not just about subsidies and schemes, but also creating a culture where people respect workers, the elderly and children of different abilities. "That, too, is how we create a thriving economy and an inclusive society."

Unionists welcomed Mr Tharman's pledge. "There is no one magic wand to boost the income of low-wage workers. What we need is a multi-pronged approach," said labour MP Zainal Sapari, who oversees NTUC's efforts to lift low wages.

The conference at Orchid Country Club is to discuss issues such as helping low-wage workers and supporting professionals, executives and managers. The biennial meeting ends tomorrow.

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