Since joining the Labour Movement in Jan 2015, many have asked me how it has been. Others have asked what I do and what keeps me going.
At that time, I jokingly said that it was to “lighten the load of my MSF colleagues”. That if I do my job well, my MSF colleagues will have less to do. There is certainly much truth in this statement. The more Singaporeans have meaningful jobs to take care of their families, the less MSF has to do.
Hence, every day, the primary concern of the Labour Chief (or SG as everyone now calls me), is jobs, jobs and jobs. Good jobs, well-paying jobs, meaningful jobs, jobs with progression, jobs for the old, jobs for the young, jobs for disadvantaged groups etc. You name it, we think about it, worry about it and will want to do something about them all.
Every week since, I have visited many companies, met numerous bosses, heard from many union leaders and spoken to many workers. Their concerns are more often than not similar – how will their companies survive the competition; and what jobs can our workers have tomorrow.
The current economic outlook is particularly challenging. Many are worried if there will be enough orders for the companies and jobs for workers in the coming months. Yet others wonder if the dark clouds over the horizon are a temporary cyclical downturn that will hopefully soon go away, or if the dark clouds signal something more fundamental which suggests that they can no longer be in the same business employing the same workers doing the same jobs. How urgent is it to invest in new capabilities?
For example, workers in some printing firms have seen their orders gradually shrink over the years. Some printing firms have even moved overseas to print and ship the products back to Singapore. Technology has changed people’s reading habits. Many of us no longer read the newspapers or books in hardcopy any more. Clearly, there are fundamental changes going on in this industry and our companies and workers will have to adapt quickly to survive. Technology has similarly changed many other consumer habits, creating new demand and destroying old ones. We may not be able to keep all the old jobs but we must try to create new products and explore new markets to create new jobs to survive. In this structural transition, our workers will need to be equipped with new skills quickly for the new jobs ahead.
But one wonders if the slowdown in demand is cyclical or structural. Consider the way consumer goods are sold at familiar supermarkets like NTUC FairPrice, Giant, Sheng Siong etc. Is the slowdown in demand due to a weak global economy or is it due to changing consumer habits of shopping online?
It may be a case of both sets of forces working at the same time. Just how should our retail outlets respond?
Perhaps, the biggest threat to the retail scene is not fellow retailers but online shopping. If online shopping is going to be more dominant, how can companies prepare themselves and our workers for this challenge? What kind of technology must they invest in? What new skills must our workers have?
How about our older workers who cannot acquire the new skills for the new industry, what other jobs can we create to help them earn decent salaries that can support their families? Are our companies bold enough to invest in new technology and markets in the face of an impending cyclical slowdown? If they don’t invest now, can we survive larger structural shifts?
As the global economy slows down, investments may also not come by that easily. Recently, I visited a high-end engine maintenance company. Our workers there are highly productive and skilled. But can the company continue to attract the next wave of investment to maintain the next generation of engines? We don’t yet know. We have skilled labour; we try to keep costs low; we have harmonious industrial relations and many other positives. But will foreign MNCs pass us over because they want to put the jobs elsewhere for non-economic considerations? It is indeed tough to compete for investments to create new and better jobs for our workers. While we cannot control all factors, we must certainly give investors the best possible reasons to want to be here. No one owes us a living.
The coming months may be challenging. But as the saying goes: In every crisis, there is opportunity. Whether the dark clouds mean a cyclical or structural issue, we must still get our act together. In every downturn, it is better to assume there are deeper structural changes needed than assume that the downturn is cyclical and we will soon be back to business as usual. There are some invariants that we must get right regardless.
First, to create a conducive business environment underpinned by strong tripartite actions to overcome the challenges together. This is the reason for NTUC, SNEF/SBF and MOM/MOE/MTI to work closely together day in day out. Our competition is not with one another but with the competition out there.
Second, to make sure that our workers are skilled for tomorrow’s jobs and markets. This is the reason for the big push to strengthen our efforts in continuing education and training. It is no longer enough just to have a set of qualifications. These qualifications must have market currency and relevance to tomorrow’s jobs. This is the reason for SkillsFuture.
Third, we must never be complacent. Instead, we must constantly ask ourselves how we can do better to keep our companies competitive; keep our costs low; equip our students with skills that the market needs; keep regulations competitive; allocate our land, labour and resources to new growth sectors; innovate to create new products and markets and many more. This is the reason why we set up the Committee for Future Economy: To re-examine our fundamentals and keep us ahead for the next lap.
By the laws of the market, only the fittest and fastest will survive. The Labour Movement is committed to working with our tripartite partners to make sure that our workers are fitter and faster than the competition. If government agencies, business partners and labour movement continue to work closely together, we have every chance to continue to do well. Tripartism is easy to understand. But getting it to work requires hard work, long term relations and shared understanding.
This is also why I decided to set up this blog, as a platform to regularly share the Labour Movement’s thoughts on how we can work together to overcome these hurdles. To the working people in Singapore: You can be assured that you are not alone on this journey. The Labour Movement will work with you to help you adapt to these changes and work towards securing a better future for us all.
This is a post by National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 14 January 2016.