Monday 3 May 2021

May Day Rally 2021

Singapore Government taking steps to avoid a second COVID-19 lockdown: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He urges Singaporeans not to let down their guard as another lockdown will be a major setback
By Tham Yuen-C Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

Singapore has to tighten measures against Covid-19 promptly where necessary to clamp down on the spread of new clusters, and avoid going into a second circuit breaker, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Speaking at the May Day Rally, he said he hoped Singaporeans would work together with the Government against the virus, and not let down their guard.

With new strains of the virus emerging, he noted, things in Singapore can deteriorate rapidly.

"We are watching our own situation, and it can easily, quickly, turn bad again," he said. "If we have to do another lockdown like last year's circuit breaker, it would be a major setback for our people and for our economic recovery. Let's not make it happen."

PM Lee's remarks come amid a spike in cases in the community in the past week.

There were 37 cases of community transmission here in the past week, from 11 cases in the week before. Many of them came from the first Covid-19 hospital cluster.

The Tan Tock Seng Hospital cluster, discovered after a nurse tested positive on Tuesday, has grown to 16 cases, one of whom died yesterday. The number of unlinked cases has also gone up from four the week before to 10 in the past week.

These developments prompted the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19 to announce tighter restrictions on gatherings, malls and travel on Friday.

"The Government is doing everything we can to prevent these clusters from spreading in the community," said PM Lee yesterday.

"And we will have to be agile and decisive in our response, to tighten measures promptly, when it's necessary, to clamp down on the spread and to avoid going into a second circuit breaker. I hope Singaporeans will work with us and not let down our guard."

He added: "It is not time to relax yet. This is a marathon. Let's keep jogging. Let's keep ourselves safe.

"Don't make the mistake which other countries have done, celebrate too early, relax too fast, let your guard down, cause another wave to come - very often worse than the first - and more nasty drastic measures become necessary."

In his speech, PM Lee noted that with the global recession less protracted than feared, Singapore's economy could achieve growth of 6 per cent or better this year.

But this would only bring it back to where it was before the pandemic, and sectors like aviation, tourism and construction are still not out of the woods, he said.

The recent ban on travellers from India, amid record daily infections surpassing 300,000 there, has worsened the situation for the construction sector, he added.

The Government is therefore working on emergency legislation to help "share the burden more fairly between the different parties - the contractors, the developers and the buyers", he said. It hopes to introduce the laws when Parliament next sits, on May 10.

PM Lee stressed the importance of ensuring the well-being, health and safety of construction workers. Protecting vulnerable groups in society is a key priority, he added, saying he planned to speak on moves to support lower-income workers at the National Day Rally in August.

He said the Government has provided relief to help companies tide over the crisis, drawing on more than $50 billion from past reserves to fund initiatives like the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS).

The wage subsidies scheme, extended until September for the hardest-hit sectors, has been applauded by many union leaders who had asked him if it could be extended further, he added.

"I said, we would think about this carefully. But please remember: JSS is artificial life support. It keeps us breathing for a while, but it doesn't cure us, and it doesn't last forever," said PM Lee.

"We must find a way to fully recover, to get back on our feet, to build new muscles to move Singapore forward again."

Low-wage workers: Protecting vulnerable groups in society a key priority, says PM Lee Hsien Loong
Govt plans to more than double number of workers under Progressive Wage Model
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

Protecting vulnerable groups in society is a key priority for the Government, which has also been working with employers and the labour movement to expand the Progressive Wage Model, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

It has been working with these tripartite partners to extend the model - a wage ladder tied to skills and career progression - to more sectors like food services and retail.

"We are working on some other plans to support lower-income workers too," added PM Lee, who said he intends to speak about these plans at the National Day Rally in August.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad is coordinating this effort from the Manpower Ministry, and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is also involved, said PM Lee.

He was addressing unionists at Downtown East as well as virtually at the hybrid May Day Rally, where he also underlined how workers need the right skills to benefit from future opportunities.

The Government is investing heavily in SkillsFuture, and will spend about $1.4 billion over the next few years, he noted.

PM Lee added: "The NTUC is a critical partner for the Government to transform our workforce. The Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) is doing good work, building up our training ecosystem."

NTUC has also recently formed over 600 Company Training Committees (CTCs) that identify capability gaps, create new competencies, and train workers for companies.

"They help workers gain the skills and capability ahead of time, so that they can switch into new roles and jobs more easily," he added.

For instance, solar energy firm Sunseap worked with NTUC to redesign its jobs to be more attractive to Singaporeans.

Copthorne King's Hotel also collaborated with the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers' Union to retrain staff to pick up new skills. One of them was reservation executive Elsie Lee who picked up a security licence. When tourist arrivals dried up, she could be easily redeployed to a new job.

Said PM Lee: "CTCs show how NTUC is making itself relevant to workers. NTUC must continue to reinvent itself, because our workforce profile is also evolving."

For one thing, the proportion of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) has gone up slightly, from a little over half of the resident workforce a decade ago to about 60 per cent today.

The number of gig workers has also more than doubled in the last three years, to 70,000.

Meanwhile, the population of older workers has also grown significantly, he noted.

NTUC has been reaching out to these different groups to better understand their specific needs, and how best to support them, PM Lee added.

To help low-wage workers, labour chief Ng Chee Meng announced the NTUC Foundation yesterday. This initiative will help sustain the many NTUC Care initiatives that support lower-income workers and their families, especially during difficult times when it is tough to raise funds, PM Lee said.

Economy: Good chance Singapore can achieve 6% growth this year
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

There is a good chance that Singapore can achieve 6 per cent growth or better this year, but this will take the country back to only where it was before Covid-19 struck, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Singapore's workers must grow new muscles, seize new opportunities and prepare themselves for life after Covid-19 through training and skills upgrading, PM Lee said in his May Day Rally speech.

Noting that the global recession has been less protracted than initially feared, he said Singapore's economic outlook going forward has brightened considerably.

While Europe is still struggling to contain the virus, the United States is expected to make a strong recovery this year on the back of a large stimulus package and good progress made in vaccinating its population. China's economy is performing strongly too, he added.

"These external trends give us confidence in our own prospects," he said, noting the official growth forecast for this year was 4 per cent to 6 per cent. "Barring a setback to the global economy, and provided our domestic Covid-19 situation remains stable, there is a very good chance we can achieve 6 per cent or better this year."

However, PM Lee noted that challenges remain for sectors like aviation and tourism, which will not recover soon.

He also paid tribute to the efforts and sacrifices of workers in Singapore who have helped the nation keep Covid-19 under control.

He thanked healthcare workers on the front line for their dedication and courage. He also thanked aviation and construction workers, noting that workers in other sectors have been affected too.

While there is some way to go before a full recovery, PM Lee highlighted three trends which the pandemic has accelerated - digitalisation, automation and sustainability - where Singapore can seize emerging opportunities and create new and better jobs.

For instance, many hawkers who previously did not see the need for digitalisation were forced to go online during the circuit breaker period, he noted. Now, more than 1,300 hawkers offer some form of online ordering and delivery and more than half of all hawkers have adopted e-payment services.

PM Lee also cited the example of pet supplies chain Pet Lovers Centre, which had to close all 70 of its retail stores during the circuit breaker. To cope with a surge in online orders, it developed a system to track inventory and upgraded its warehouse with an automated storage and retrieval system, with support from Enterprise Singapore.

Said PM Lee: "That is automation, and it's helped the company. Pet Lovers Centre had its productivity and its warehouse capacity more than double. It's made sure to put itself into a stronger position to ramp up its business when the economy picks up."

Staff morale has also gone up as employees have picked up new skills, become more productive and are paid more.

On sustainability, PM Lee gave the example of Sunseap, a clean energy solutions provider which is installing one of the Republic's largest floating solar farms in the Strait of Johor off Woodlands.

He said installing solar panels is a skilled, technical job that pays quite well, but it is hard outdoor work that is done under the sun, mostly by foreign workers. Faced with a manpower crunch, Sunseap redesigned the role and trained young Singaporeans to take up jobs as solar technicians and engineers.

"It helped that young Singaporeans are enthusiastic about climate change and renewable energy, and they know that these fields are going to become increasingly important parts of our economy," he said.

Nominated MP Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab, who is general secretary of the Union of Power and Gas Employees, said sectors like power reflect how all three trends come together and are creating new opportunities. "In the future, these jobs will not be so labour-intensive because of technology. And with tech, we can get younger workers more interested in the sector," he said.

There will be new roles that emerge, he added.

"We used to have manual meters and we had to send meter readers. Now there are smart meters and the guy who installs them can also read and analyse them."

Additional reporting by Sue-Ann Tan

Emergency legislation in the pipeline for battered construction sector
Measures aim to share burden more fairly between contractors, developers, buyers
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

Emergency legislation to address the severe disruption to the construction sector arising from curbs on the entry of migrant workers is in the works, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

It will be aimed at making the burden more fairly shared between the different parties - the contractors, the developers and the buyers, he said, adding that the Government hopes to introduce the legislation when Parliament next sits on May 10.

Union leaders and industry stakeholders welcomed further measures to support the battered sector, which continues to face issues even after the virus outbreak at the dormitories was contained.

PM Lee said at the hybrid May Day Rally: "The safe management measures which are still necessary have burdened the industry.

"The manpower crunch, because some of the migrant workers have gone home, has added to its problems. Projects have been delayed. Costs have gone up. The recent ban on travellers from India has worsened the situation for the construction industry."

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said in a Facebook post that the pandemic has delayed progress at many worksites, and affected buyers of homes and other properties.

Mr Desmond Lee said: "We are working on further measures to help keep construction going. This includes potential legislation that PM Lee spoke about, that will enable the significant increases in labour costs to be fairly shared between developers and contractors, and between main contractors and subcontractors."

Mr Kesavan Vasundran, president of the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees' Union, added: "If the timeline for projects has to be stretched longer, then everyone has to understand that it is because of the pandemic. Everyone has to do their part."

But Mr Desmond Lee noted that even as these measures are given out to support firms and workers, the construction sector has to "press on with the much-needed transformation" of the industry, so that it grows more productive, efficient and manpower-lean.

Singapore National Employers Federation vice-president Douglas Foo agreed that while short-term measures can bolster the sector, it has to co-create new models of working that incorporate technology to make the work safer and less labour-intensive.

With current travel restrictions due to Covid-19 and manpower issues, projects end up getting pushed back.

"Today, there are many projects that are being delayed. There are many construction companies that have projects that they have to deliver within a certain timeline," Mr Foo said.

With these challenges, companies will be looking forward to the upcoming legislation, he added.

"The enterprises are not alone. They have got the partnership with the unions and the government agencies, so that we can come up with a plan on how they can continue to deliver those projects without compromising safety."

Straits Construction executive director Kenneth Loo said the industry is concerned about the rising costs of manpower and related problems like supply chain disruption, adding that it is also grappling with fulfilling contractual obligations on time.

"The challenge is still there and I think that is something that needs to be addressed," he said.

COVID-19 a reminder of labour movement's vital role in protecting workers: PM Lee
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 May 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic underscores how vital a strong labour movement is, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, as he thanked the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for tirelessly protecting workers here.

"This last year, NTUC's dedication to its mission has truly come to the fore," he said at the May Day Rally marking the NTUC's 60th year.

"As Singapore presses forward in an uncertain world, we must keep our labour movement strong, and strengthen its bonds with a pro-labour PAP government," he said, referring to the People's Action Party.

Addressing unionists at Downtown East, PM Lee noted that the labour movement had "protected workers in every way".

Amid the downturn, the NTUC ensured retrenchments were done fairly when job cuts became inevitable, helped workers tap government schemes, and encouraged workers to accept immediate sacrifices to save jobs in the long run, he said.

Acknowledging the difficulties the unionists faced, PM Lee said: "They felt a sense of mission, cushioning the blow for the affected workers, helping them get back on their feet, helping them find and settle into new jobs."

The efforts reaped rewards, with local employment not suffering greatly and even rising a little, even though the downturn has been worse than any previous one Singapore has had to weather.

In fact, said PM Lee, the Government, unions and employers - the tripartite partners - have weathered many crises together.

He recounted how, in 1985, when Singapore faced its first major recession, ministers and union leaders had to help workers see that business costs had gone out of line and persuade them to accept drastic measures like cutting Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions by 15 per cent.

PM Lee, who was then Minister for Trade and Industry, said that ultimately, the workers supported the tough measures because that generation of union leaders, led by then NTUC chief Ong Teng Cheong, had earned their trust.

"That unforgettable experience for those of us who went through it reinforced the bonds between the Government and the unions, as well as with employers. It was a powerful demonstration of tripartism at work," said PM Lee.

Subsequent generations of government, union and business leaders have sustained the bonds, he said, with the Government restoring CPF rates when economic conditions allowed, employers turning to retrenchments in downturns as a last resort, and union leaders cooperating to find solutions.

PM Lee traced this tripartite model back to the NTUC's Modernisation Seminar in 1969, when the labour movement, faced with a decline in membership, looked to redefine its role.

After Singapore achieved self-government in 1959, the fight between non-communists and pro-communists heated up, and the unions became a battleground.

The pro-communist group within the PAP eventually broke away in 1961 to form Barisan Sosialis, splitting the trade union movement, with 82 unions supporting the new party. The 12 unions that stood with the PAP got together and formed the NTUC.

In 1967, widespread industrial strife deterred foreign investments. The Government restored employers' right to hire and fire, and curtailed the unions' power. It was an uphill task for the Government and NTUC to persuade workers that their basic rights would be protected, and the perception grew that the unions were no longer effective.

Against this backdrop, former president Devan Nair, who chaired the Modernisation Seminar, argued that workers were ultimately interested in salaries and bonuses, and not in strikes or a communist state, said PM Lee.

The NTUC launched social enterprises such as Income and FairPrice to cater to workers' needs. Employers played their part, treating unions as partners and not adversaries. These efforts ushered in a new era of industrial relations based on collaboration rather than confrontation, PM Lee said, and since then, a strong labour movement has been an essential partner in Singapore's progress.

He said ministers and NTUC leaders work closely together, and added that he sought NTUC chief Ng Chee Meng's views before the recent Cabinet changes.

Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon, who was NTUC deputy secretary-general, will return to the Government full-time to join the Ministry of Manpower, where PM Lee wanted an office-holder familiar with NTUC. Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat will join the labour movement and retain his transport portfolio.

PM Lee also paid tribute to two old-time stalwarts who died this year: Mr Mahmud Awang, who chaired the NTUC's first pro-tem committee, and Mr Nachiappan Sinniah, a Union of Power and Gas Employees founding member.

Noting that union memberships in Singapore have grown steadily, unlike in other developed countries, PM Lee pledged that the PAP will stand by the NTUC and workers, as it always has.

"Now, we're in Covid-19, going through the crisis not of a decade, but of a generation. But if we look back at our record of how we have overcome past crises, Covid-19 doesn't look quite so daunting."

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