Friday, 1 May 2020

May Day 2020: Long, hard road ahead to recovery from COVID-19, PM Lee Hsien Loong cautions

Things won't return to normal once circuit breaker ends, but Singapore can pull through crisis, he says
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

The road to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be long and hard, and Singaporeans must be under no illusion that everything will return to normal once the circuit breaker ends or infection numbers come down, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

In the short term, workers must accept wage sacrifices to keep businesses going, and employers must make every effort to keep their staff and help them through the crisis.

Further down the road, the economy will undergo structural changes that disrupt industries and cause job losses.

But Singapore has what it takes to succeed, PM Lee emphasised in his May Day message to workers, in which he laid out his strategy for getting the country through the immediate crisis and adapting to longer-term changes.

"We have experienced economic restructuring before, having done it more than once to get here," he said in a message that was televised last night in lieu of a physical rally, on account of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We have the resources to support businesses, invest in our workforce and take care of our people," said PM Lee.

He also highlighted the tripartite partnership between the Government, employers and the labour movement, which has helped the country weather many storms.

After the number of new COVID-19 cases falls, Singapore will ease circuit breaker measures and progressively restart its economy, PM Lee said.

But this will not be a straightforward undertaking and some sectors will have to wait longer than others to get back to business.

Meanwhile, the country needs to step up testing for the virus, speed up contact tracing and proceed cautiously, with safeguards, so that infection numbers do not rise again.

"Some industries will open up earlier than others, and recover sooner," PM Lee said.

"Other sectors will have to wait, especially those which attract crowds, or involve close contact with other people, such as entertainment outlets and large-scale sporting events."

The sectors to be opened up first include those that are critical to keeping Singapore's economy going domestically, as well as those that keep the country connected to the world and global supply chains.

Meanwhile, Singapore must keep all other industries "intact, ready to resume business when conditions allow". This demands close cooperation between companies, workers and the Government, PM Lee said.

He noted that tourism and aviation are likely to take much longer to recover than the rest, because international travel will remain restricted as long as COVID-19 poses a global threat.

"Air transport is fundamental to Singapore's role as a global and regional hub. It is a strategic sector. This is why the Government is providing extra support for aviation," he said.

PM Lee stressed that the Government is determined that badly hit national carrier Singapore Airlines will weather the crisis.

"SIA has always flown Singapore's flag high all over the world, and made us proud. We will spare no effort to enable it to do so again."

In the longer term, PM Lee said, the pandemic will result in many changes to the global economy.

For instance, there will be more restrictions on the movement of goods and people, and countries will strive to rely less on imports for food and essential items such as medicines and face masks.

This will have major implications for global trade and investment, and Singapore will face a greater challenge than most countries because it is so small and globalised, PM Lee said.

"But we are not a people who will shrink from struggle. It took us blood, sweat and tears to get here," he said, adding that COVID-19 is this generation's challenge.

"It is now our turn to prove that we are worthy of our forebears, and up to the challenge before us. I have every confidence that we will prove more than equal to the task."

Speaking to reporters after PM Lee's message last night, union leaders said workers are concerned about their jobs and companies are struggling with cost pressures.

But both sides are finding ways to manage the situation, with some workers taking on other deployments or taking time out to reskill, they said, adding that Singapore's model of tripartite cooperation was a plus for the country.

Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said the group - started over a decade ago by the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation - plans to post videos for foreign workers to celebrate their contributions to Singapore.

PM Lee pledges help for firms, workers to adapt to new normal
Singapore will face greater challenge than most but there will be opportunities too, he says
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

Singapore faces a greater challenge than most others, given it is small and so open to the world, as the coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changes the way the global economy works.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged yesterday to help companies adapt to the new operating environment and retrain workers for the new jobs that will become available.

Singapore will also find ways to buffer freelancers against economic volatility, he said, adding in his annual May Day speech: "We will not be able to save every job. But we will look after every worker."

On the global stage, the aftermath of the pandemic will likely see more restrictions on the movement of goods and people, PM Lee said. Countries will strive to rely less on imports for food and essential items, such as medicine and face masks.

This will have major implications for global trade and investment and Singapore, in turn, will face greater challenges because it is so small and globalised.

Some industries will be disrupted permanently and some jobs will simply disappear, PM Lee said. Companies will have to change their business models to survive, and workers whose jobs no longer exist will have to reskill and move to new sectors.

Yet these changes will bring about opportunities, he added.

During the circuit breaker period, workers have learnt to telecommute and work with others virtually, while students have got used to online learning. In addition, more people are buying things online and making e-payments.

"We will not go back to status quo ante, after the circuit breaker ends," PM Lee said. "And that will mean opportunities in these new ways of doing things."

At present, industries such as medical services, biotech, food production and delivery and information technology are growing. Many firms in these sectors are seeing stronger demand and hiring more people, he said.

"We have capabilities in some of these new and growing sectors. Other industries will be new to us, and we will have to build up our expertise and workforce."

The Government will scale up SkillsFuture programmes to train workers on a large scale. The National Trades Union Congress has also set up a job council to help train and match displaced workers with new job opportunities.

Singapore's small size poses a challenge but also allows the country to be nimble, PM Lee said.

"Most importantly, we have what it takes to succeed. We have experienced economic restructuring before, having done it more than once to get here," he added.

The country also has the resources to support businesses, invest in its workforce, and take care of its people.

On top of that, the tripartite partnership between employers, the Government and the labour movement means that the country works together as a nation and leaves no one behind, PM Lee said. "This is why we have taken unprecedented steps to draw upon our reserves, in order to forestall retrenchments and support the low income."

The Government has set aside $60 billion to help Singaporeans through the crisis, part of which has been funded by tapping the national reserves.

Unlike many other governments, Singapore has not had to resort to borrowing to provide this support, PM Lee said. "This crisis is indeed a reminder for us to be prudent and frugal, to build up our reserves in peacetime, so that in truly difficult times, we will have something extra to fall back on."

No celebrations, but May Day remains especially important: DPM Heng Swee Keat
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

May Day became a public holiday in Singapore some 60 years ago to commemorate the strength and solidarity of workers.

The usual gatherings and celebrations are not possible this year amid the coronavirus pandemic but the day remains especially important, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in a Facebook post yesterday.

"Sixty years on, we are headed into a major storm - an unprecedented global pandemic and a looming global economic downturn, which is likely to be severe," he said.

"These are challenging times for all of us - workers, employers and the Government. But the strength of our tripartite partnership will enable us to get through this rough storm, just as we had done before. All of us will need to be resilient and adapt to the changes as they come."

He noted that this brand of tripartism, in which workers and unions work with the Government and employers to shape the future, was forged during the 1960s.

"Over the years, tripartism thrived and grew stronger. With that, the lives of our workers improved year by year," he said.

He applauded all workers, including the dedication of front-line teams, the tenacity of migrant workers and the resilience of those whose livelihoods have been affected. "While we may not be able to save every job, we will take care of every worker," he said.

This year, the May Day Rally will not be held. Instead, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day message was streamed online and broadcast on TV last night.

The Istana Open House, for President Halimah Yacob to meet workers and families, has been cancelled.

She said in a Facebook post yesterday: "This year's Labour Day celebrations will be very different from previous years. It will be a solemn and quiet celebration due to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures."

For the first time, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Ministry of Manpower and Singapore National Employers Federation issued a joint May Day message. It has been a tradition for each of the tripartite partners to separately issue a May Day Message every year.

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said on Facebook: "The challenges we face today because of COVID-19 will put tripartism to the test. But we will not let it weaken it. Unity will bring us strength so that we can work together to help our workers and companies through the days ahead... If we work together, we will emerge stronger."

NTUC has also done a stitch-together photograph of the labour movement and tripartite partners over Zoom, including about 120 members.

Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, chairman of the Migrant Workers' Centre, said: "For May Day celebration, we... want to reassure the migrant workers that we will look after all (of them)... because every worker matters. We have planned a series of videos with songs and dances that we will roll out."

Singapore to take a step by step approach to restarting economy after COVID-19 circuit breaker
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

Not all businesses will be able to start work immediately when the coronavirus situation improves, as Singapore plans a "step by step" approach to restarting its economy, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Sectors deemed critical for the domestic economy, as well as those connecting Singapore to the world and global supply chains, will be allowed to open up first.

But others will have to wait - especially those that attract crowds or involve close contact with other people, such as entertainment outlets and large-scale sporting events.

"We have kept essential services going. But the rest of the economy will have to open up step by step, and not all at once," PM Lee said. "Some industries will open up earlier than others, and recover sooner."

The others must be kept "intact" and ready to resume business when conditions allow, he added in his May Day message to workers, aired on national television for the first time yesterday.

"This demands close cooperation between companies, workers and the Government," he said.

PM Lee had, on April 3, announced significantly stricter measures - like a circuit breaker - that would apply for one month to stem the spread of COVID-19 transmission in the community.

Most workplaces, except for essential services and key economic sectors, have been closed since April 7. Restrictions on gatherings and people movement were also tightened.

On April 21, PM Lee announced the extension of these circuit breaker measures to June 1, with rules tightened for two weeks. More workplaces had to close too.

PM Lee added then that any lifting of restrictions had to be done incrementally and in small steps. Singapore also had to step up testing substantially and make better use of technology to track and trace COVID-19 infections, he said.

In his speech last night, the Prime Minister laid out his strategy to get Singapore through the current crisis and help it adapt to the longer-term structural changes ahead.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the global economy and Singapore, as an open economy, has borne the brunt of the downturn, he said.

"After we bring down the number of new COVID-19 cases, we can ease the circuit breaker measures, and progressively restart our economy," PM Lee added.

"This will not be straightforward. We need to step up COVID-19 testing and speed up contact tracing. And we must proceed cautiously, with safeguards, so infections do not flare up again."

Meanwhile, tourism and aviation are likely to take much longer to recover than other sectors, as international travel will remain restricted as long as COVID-19 poses a threat to the rest of the world, he said.

Migrant worker hospitalised in Sengkang Hospital had laid tiles in ward, PM Lee says in May Day message
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

The S11 Dormitory in Punggol is Singapore's largest COVID-19 cluster, with over 2,400 cases to date.

It is supported by Sengkang General Hospital, Singapore's newest hospital, which is just 3km away.

Some of the S11 residents had in fact helped to build the Sengkang hospital, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, as he paid tribute to migrant workers and thanked them for their contributions to Singapore in his May Day message.

"One worker who was hospitalised told his doctor that he had laid the tiles in the ward he was staying in. The Sengkang hospital medical team were moved. They were happy to be able to give back directly to the workers," PM Lee said.

"May Day is a day of celebration for all workers, including migrant workers. I too send my thanks and good wishes to all migrant workers in Singapore, for what you have built and contributed here."

PM Lee noted that there were still many COVID-19 cases in the migrant worker dormitories. "Fortunately, most of them are mild, probably because the workers are young. Nevertheless, we are doing everything we can for their health and welfare."

He noted that the Government has assigned medical teams from hospitals to provide support in the dorms.

In his speech, PM Lee also acknowledged that the circuit breaker measures have been difficult for everyone, as the restrictions have disrupted businesses and jobs, and created considerable inconvenience.

"But you have been resilient, and you have taken this in your stride," he added. "I am especially grateful to our brothers and sisters working in essential services, who have kept Singapore going".

He thanked healthcare professionals, officers from the Home Team, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Ministry of Manpower, and others.

"Our public transport workers, security guards, cleaners, social service professionals, delivery riders and taxi drivers. Our teachers, who have worked hard to implement home-based learning, and pre-school teachers too.

"All of you have made sacrifices and exceeded the call of duty. Your families too have stood by your side, supporting you. To all of you, I want to say a big thank you," he said.

Indian worker with COVID-19 recovered in Sengkang General Hospital ward he helped build
By K. Janarthanan, The Straits Times, 16 May 2020

Mr Vellaichamy Periyakaruppan was panic-stricken when he received news that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Several dark images flashed through his mind.

But he felt assured when told that he was going to be admitted to Sengkang General Hospital (SKH), where he had worked as a tile fitter for two years starting from May 2016, and had helped build the ward he was going to be staying in.

"None of my loved ones was able to be with me at the time of my admission," said the 44-year-old father of two. "Yet, returning to the place where I had worked before gave me strength and solace."

Mr Periyakaruppan's troubles with COVID-19 began on April 18 when he developed a bad headache and felt feverish. His colleagues urged him to "sleep it off", but he decided to alert his dormitory supervisor at PPT Lodge 1A in Punggol.

"There were 12 people staying in my room and I was worried because I had heard about a COVID-19 cluster forming at the neighbouring S11 Dormitory in March," said the worker from Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu.

"The inhabitants of that dormitory would come to my dormitory to buy food. And workers from both dormitories would travel together on public buses to worksites."

He was isolated when his temperature climbed to 38.6 deg C and he was later sent for a COVID-19 test.

The next day, he was declared positive and admitted to SKH.

"I had no fears lying in the ward because I was in a place I was familiar with," said Mr Periyakaruppan, who has been in Singapore for 22 years and is currently employed by Sim Kheng Hong Singapore.

He reassured his family over the phone that he would be all right soon. "I was also happy because there was another Tamil man in the ward," he said. "I decided to place my faith in God and Singapore's excellent healthcare system. I was sure my fever would subside."

Four days later, his fever did indeed subside. After being kept under observation for some more days, he was transferred to the community care facility at Singapore Expo on May 2. Mr Periyakaruppan said he now exercises daily and watches shows on his mobile phone.

He was also thrilled that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned him in his May Day speech as "one worker" who "told his doctor that he had laid the tiles in the ward he was staying in".

"I feel very proud... and am overwhelmed by the love and care that Singapore has shown me," he said. "Singapore is a beautiful country with racial harmony and I was well taken care of by everyone regardless of race."

Dr Ng Yi Kang, the hospital's associate consultant gastroenterologist who had been treating him, said: "I told him we are very grateful for his contribution and we will do our best to take care of him. I felt privileged to be able to give back to our foreign workers who had built SKH for us."

Dr Hamid Rahmatullah, a Tamil-speaking associate consultant orthopaedic surgeon, also reassured Mr Periyakaruppan that he would be well looked after.

"I highlighted the importance of his and his peers' work towards building Singapore and that we recognise their contributions. I added that we will strive to look after them during this pandemic."

Mr Periyakaruppan felt there is no need for migrant workers to rush back to their countries.

"Returning to your country does not mean that you can be in your home immediately," he said.

"There is a 14-day quarantine period. We do not know how safe the quarantine facilities are in our home countries. Singapore, by contrast, has a very reliable healthcare infrastructure. Moreover, for migrant workers like me who cannot read very well, Singapore has people who can explain things nicely in Tamil."

Government determined to see SIA through COVID-19 crisis: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Wong Kai Yi, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

No effort will be spared to ensure that Singapore Airlines and the aviation sector will see through the current crisis, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"The Singapore Airlines (SIA) group has been severely hit. As our national carrier, SIA has supported our efforts to fight COVID-19," said Mr Lee in his May Day message.

"They help to fly in essential supplies. They have mounted evacuation flights to bring Singaporeans home. Their cabin crew are serving as care ambassadors in hospitals, and safe distancing ambassadors in trains, markets and malls," he said, outlining what SIA and its staff are doing to combat the coronavirus.

"But like most other airlines, most SQ flights will remain grounded for some time. SIA management have taken pay cuts. The unions and the workers have accepted sacrifices too," he added.

"All in SIA understand that the airline is facing its biggest crisis ever. They are all doing their part to help the company survive."

PM Lee noted that tourism and aviation will take much longer to recover than other sectors, because international travel will remain restricted as long as COVID-19 is still a problem around the world.

Air transport, he added, is fundamental to Singapore's role as a global and regional hub.

"It is a strategic sector. This is why the Government is providing extra support for aviation," he said.

Last Friday, SIA announced that it will extend its flight cancellations to the end of next month amid travel restrictions around the globe. At present, SIA has passenger flights to just 15 destinations, compared with over 130 normally.

"The Government is determined that SIA will see through this crisis," said PM Lee.

"SIA has always flown Singapore's flag high all over the world, and made us proud. We will spare no effort to enable it to do so again."

President Halimah Yacob urges workers, companies to be ready for big changes after crisis
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

Society will see major changes to work, the workforce and workplaces after the coronavirus crisis, President Halimah Yacob said in her May Day message on Facebook yesterday.

She added: "Life will never be the same after COVID-19... Companies and workers should take full advantage of this period to plan, rethink their strategies and ramp up workers' skills to prepare for work after COVID-19."

Madam Halimah also commented on this year's unusual May Day celebrations, with social distancing measures and activities either taken online or cancelled.

"This May Day, we are also celebrating under very difficult circumstances," she noted. "Companies worry about the impact on their businesses and workers are concerned about job and income security."

The Jobs Support Scheme, which subsidises workers' wages, has provided some relief, she added, with hopes that employers retain their staff despite having excess capacity or no activity at all.

"Despite all these measures, many workers now enjoy less income because there is no overtime pay and the self-employed find it even more difficult in the current economic conditions to earn a living. I hope that the various government and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistance schemes will provide some relief," she said.

Madam Halimah also emphasised that the unions, working with their tripartite partners, are playing an even more important role in supporting companies and workers.

"Trade unions are close to the ground and understand well the concerns and needs of the workers. They can do a lot to help them transit through this period and prepare for the eventual opening up of the economy after COVID-19," she said.

"Unions and unionised companies must lead the way as our economy adjusts to new norms post-COVID-19. I am glad that during my discussions and lunches with union leaders before the circuit breaker measures kicked in, I saw their drive to continue working closely with our tripartite partners to improve our workers' lives.

"I hope to continue to engage the unions and to find out how we can support our workers better."

President Halimah is a former deputy secretary-general of the labour movement. She started her career as a legal officer at NTUC.

She added that the outbreak has brought out the best in Singapore's workers, mentioning front-line staff and those in an array of industries who continue behind the scenes in essential roles.

"Other workers are innovating and designing new ways to help one another, the less fortunate and the needy, so that we can pull out of this crisis stronger. These are all incredibly selfless acts in the face of great risks, and we should not take their contributions for granted," she said.

"Your commitment and contributions truly make a difference," she added.

"These are unprecedented times but our spirit and solidarity remain strong and will see us through."

Unionists say they are working with firms to save jobs
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 1 May 2020

Workers are concerned and companies are struggling with cost pressures, but both sides are finding ways to manage the coronavirus crisis, union leaders said following Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day message yesterday.

The unionists told reporters they agreed that the post-coronavirus economy will change and that companies and workers have to prepare for such a future. Workers ranging from freelance instructors to aviation industry employees to those in hospitality and food and beverage have been hard hit, union leaders said.

Ms Julie Cheong, president of the Food Drinks and Allied Workers Union, said some firms had thought about retrenching workers, but held back after discussions with the union.

"We have told companies to hold back because of the Jobs Support Scheme and companies have been looking at numbers to see how much they can save wages and keep jobs," she said.

Companies are also encouraged to redeploy workers, such as by having them work as safe distancing ambassadors. They can also get employees to clear annual leave. Some workers have even volunteered to take unpaid leave.

Mr Darius Lim, deputy general secretary of the National Instructors and Coaches Association, said instructors have been hit hard, especially as schools have stopped co-curricular activities.

The government grants are helpful, but more support is needed, he said. His association is also looking into the possibility of monthly payments for instructors, and virtual lessons.

Mr Ong Hwee Liang, general secretary of the SIA Engineering Company Engineers and Executives Union, noted that grounded flights have led to excess manpower and reduced workload.

"We will do our utmost to avoid retrenchment. In the event... that we have exhausted all options and companies still have to release workers as a last resort, we want them to do it responsibly," he said.

Mr Ong added that this is the time to get workers trained for the future, as the post-crisis economy will be a different world. "During busy times, it is quite hard to free up resources and manpower to do training. This is an opportunity to look at reskilling our workers," he said.

Mr Lim Wen Sheng, deputy general secretary of the Food Drinks and Allied Workers Union, said: "The economy is changing very rapidly especially during this period... In the long run, workers have to be mentally prepared for how they can get back to normal life."

The future will also change for migrant workers, said Migrant Workers' Centre chairman Yeo Guat Kwang.

"We really have to reflect and take some learning points... and need to get everyone to understand how we can work and live and socialise together safely," he added. "We need to study it further... but now it is important to do our best to take care of them and reassure them that they need not worry."

NTUC, Government and employer federation pledge to safeguard lives and jobs in joint May Day message 2020
By Grace Ho, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2020

The labour movement, Government and employers yesterday pledged their solidarity with workers in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and their steadfast commitment to protecting lives and livelihoods.

For the first time, the tripartite partners - the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Ministry of Manpower and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) - issued a joint May Day message.

"We are prepared to do what we can to protect livelihoods and ensure the sustainability of businesses," they said in their message, which was co-written by NTUC president Mary Liew, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo and SNEF president Robert Yap.

These whole-of-nation efforts, they said, included convening the National Wages Council earlier than usual and issuing over 10 advisories to give clear guidance to employers and workers on coping with the COVID-19 situation.

The partners noted that over a third of the $63.7 billion allocated in the Budget to fight COVID-19 had been set aside for jobs and wage support, including the Jobs Support Scheme that subsidies wages and helps firms to retain their workers.

They also encouraged workers and self-employed persons (SEPs) to make use of the downtime to improve their skills with the enhanced training support, such as increased course fee subsidies and the NTUC Training Fund for SEPs.

Said Mr Ng in an accompanying video: "We urge employers to tap the enhanced Jobs Support Scheme to retain and continue paying their workers. We also want to encourage workers and self-employed persons to use this difficult time to improve their skills."

Beyond financial support, the partners are also creating opportunities in the difficult job market through the SGUnited Jobs Initiative, they said, adding that besides pre-emptively helping companies with workers at risk of retrenchment, the NTUC Job Security Council is helping them match jobs in demand to workers.

"The SNEF is also doing its part by helping to reskill and place unemployed older professionals, managers, executives and technicians in small and medium-sized enterprises during this period," they said in the message. "Reskilling and redeployment efforts are also being ramped up in sectors most severely affected by COVID-19, such as tourism, aviation, retail and food services."

Other efforts include the SG United Traineeships Programme, which aims to provide up to 8,000 paid traineeships for graduates from the Institute of Technical Education, polytechnics, universities and other educational institutions.

The Government's support extends to protecting the health and safety of migrant workers too, they said, adding that foreign worker levy waiver and rebate measures will enable employers to pay these workers, so that they can resume operations after the circuit breaker ends on June 1.

The partners also urged workers to do their part and adapt to the new norms of work, even as employers prepare for the long term by transforming their businesses and upgrading workforce capabilities.

Concluding their message, they said the labour movement, Government and employers will stand united with businesses and workers and build a resilient workforce.

"COVID-19 is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we have faced. But we are well prepared," they said. "We will help businesses stay afloat and be geared for the upturn when it comes... Together, we stand in solidarity with our people to navigate this crisis and emerge stronger and more united as one nation."

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