Saturday 30 August 2014

Unionists worried about new CPF option

They fear low-wage earners will come to grief if they withdraw lump sum cash
By Toh Yong Chuan And Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2014

AN UPCOMING move by the Government to let workers who retire withdraw part of their Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings in a lump sum worries unionists.

They fear it will bring grief to the very group of workers whose well-being they have always strived to protect: the low-wage earners. These rank-and-file workers have traditionally formed the backbone of NTUC's union membership.

A lump sum withdrawal will reduce what is left in their CPF savings for the monthly payouts, they told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a closed-door dialogue yesterday.

This concern was uppermost on the mind of Mr Benjamin Tang, president of the Port Officers' Union and a member of the highest decision- making body in the National Trades Union Congress.

He told reporters after the dialogue: "The ones who are making the most noise... to withdraw more of their CPF are basically the very workers the unionists, the labour movement and the Government are really concerned about."

The dialogue was held for the unionists to ask questions on PM Lee's National Day Rally speech.

At the rally two weeks ago, the Prime Minister had said CPF members will soon have the option of a lump sum withdrawal after they retire, but the withdrawals will be capped.

Details have not been finalised but the limit could be set at 20 per cent of their total savings.

Mr Tang told reporters that PM Lee acknowledged their concerns and assured the 550 unionists at the meeting that the CPF will remain a "retirement nest egg".

Another issue that was raised was on a new report to improve the career prospects of polytechnic and ITE students.

Recommendations on how this can be done was made by the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee last week.

Unionists said they hoped for fair opportunities for both degree holders and non-degree holders.

They also want to see a "parallel pathway" that allows workers to progress in their careers, regardless of their academic qualifications, NTUC said in a statement last night.

But some unionists, according to Mr Arasu Duraisamy, first deputy general secretary of the Singapore Port Workers Union, worry this could mean degrees are no longer relevant in the workplace.

He told The Straits Times: "(Mr Lee) did stress that he did not say you should not get a degree. What he's trying to say is you should not get just any degree, but a degree relevant to your job."

The message, Mr Arasu added, is that people should not be "wasting time and money" on a degree that does not fit the job.

In his rally speech, Mr Lee had said: "Do not go on a paper chase for qualifications or degrees, especially if they are not relevant, because pathways and opportunities to upgrade and to get better qualifications will remain open throughout your career."

Alternate career paths and the CPF were among four key points discussed at the dialogue, organised by the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute, said the NTUC statement.

Another was the recognition of the pioneer generation, which Mr Arasu said kicked off the session: "Mr Lee was trying to send the message - look, at that time, these were the people who did so much for the country. So he expects us to be no less than them in that sense."

The final issue was re-employment.

Union leaders recognised that having the opportunity to work longer is the most effective way to prepare for retirement, said NTUC.

It underlines the labour movement's call for the re-employment age to be raised beyond 65.

They also hope the Government will offer incentives to encourage private-sector employers to voluntarily keep workers past the age of 65.

Besides PM Lee, the panel of speakers included Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, NTUC president Diana Chia, NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say and NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How.

Mr Arasu said the Prime Minister was candid in his responses to the unionists who, according to Mr Tang, "did not hold back" on their questions and opinions.

Said Mr Tang: "Basically, what the unionists want to know is - what is the message the Prime Minister is trying to put across, what he is thinking, who he is trying to protect and what he thinks is best for Singaporeans."

Three-pronged way to boost productivity: Swee Say
Demand for labour in less productive sectors hindering drive, says minister
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2014

LABOUR-INTENSIVE sectors which have not raised their game are a big reason the productivity drive has struggled to gain momentum in the past two years, labour chief Lim Swee Say said yesterday.

Sectors such as construction and food services are not only lagging behind in productivity levels but are also increasing their share of the total workforce.

These two factors have combined to pull down overall productivity growth, which has been weak over the past few years, said Mr Lim, who is secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

"If the demand for manpower, both local and foreign, in these less productive sectors continues to outpace that of more productive sectors, it will not serve the interests of our workers, and will continue to impede our effort to improve national productivity."

Speaking to unionists at a National Day observance ceremony yesterday, Mr Lim noted that productivity grew by an average of 3 per cent a year over the past four years. But of those four years, productivity actually fell in 2012 and last year.

Mr Lim, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said that to tackle this problem, the country has to take a three- pronged approach.

First, every sector has to be made more productive. This can be done by getting firms to emulate more successful ones in the productivity drive and speeding up the pace of innovation and change across industries, he said.

Second, helping less productive sectors lower their need for workers. "As we slow down the growth of the workforce to a more sustainable pace, we need to help sectors with lower productivity make better use of technology, especially labour-saving devices," he said.

Lastly, the country must go on "the offensive" by thinking of the future, said Mr Lim at the NTUC Centre. In the manufacturing sector, for example, there are firms that have begun to use robots and to train workers to work with them, which allows the workers to earn higher salaries, he said.

The service sector, he added, can start to encourage more cooperation between customers and employees to raise the overall service experience in innovative ways that use less labour.

He also told the media that the labour movement fully supports the recommendations of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee.

"The key driving force in terms of how far we can go, how fast we can move, depends on the quality of manpower," he said.

But while some economists agreed that the labour-intensive sectors may have dragged down overall productivity, others also questioned if firms in those sectors can raise output faster than labour growth.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin said the food and beverage and building sectors, which have seen some of the strongest tightening of foreign labour, are the ones failing to see productivity improvements.

"It calls to question whether they're already at their limits, or whether the workers... who are being brought into the labour force are not able to be as productive as the foreign workers they are replacing," he said.

OCBC Bank economist Selena Ling said that even with manpower curbs restricting the growth of the workforce, it remains to be seen whether companies can raise output faster than labour growth.

"It's not clear how much (of productivity growth) is policy-driven and how much is due to companies' decisions about whether to hire more or invest more."

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