By Amresh Gunasingham
SINGAPORE should brace itself for record highs in the unemployment rate and job losses this year, given current global trends. But the Government, unions and employers are doing all they can to keep the numbers down, and things would be much worse if not for initiatives like the Jobs Credit scheme, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Swee Say said last night.
Speaking after a People's Association event at the Nanyang Polytechnic last night, Mr Lim said that, because the current downturn is deeper and more severe than during the Asian financial crisis in 1998, he expects retrenchments to be higher than the 30,000 then.
In the first quarter of this year alone, he expects that 3,500 unionised workers will lose their jobs, up from 1,500 in the fourth quarter of last year.
Layoffs have accelerated after the Chinese New Year, said Mr Lim, who is also the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress. 'This week alone, we've already seen one sizeable retrenchment of 150 workers within the unionised sector.'
On the unemployment rate, which hit a record of 5.2 per cent in 2003, when Sars hit, Mr Lim said a comparison of both situations shows 'there's no reason why we can hope' the rate will be below that.
But, he said, the Government is putting in its 'very best effort' to mitigate the effects of the downturn, through initiatives like the Jobs Credit scheme and the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience (Spur), a $600 million training plan aimed at helping workers upgrade and retrain.
Mr Lim said encouraging signs are emerging.
'Because of these programmes, we are seeing some of these companies trying to delay retrenchments as far as they can.
'Where retrenchments are unavoidable, they try to keep the number as low as possible,' he said.
He gave the example of one company which downsized its workforce by allowing its foreign workers to finish their contracts, and not renewing them.
'Through a combination of natural attrition and non-renewal of work permits, companies are minimising the need to retrench their local workers,' he said.
On Spur's effects, Mr Lim said there is an increasing number of companies that are sending excess workers for retraining or upgrading, thus lessening the need for layoffs. Even if they are retrenched, workers armed with new skills will be able to land jobs quickly.
Last night, Mr Lim promised that everything possible would be done to help workers.
'Even if our heads are saying that its going to be more than 30,000 retrenchments, and an unemployment rate higher than 5.2 per cent, our hearts say 'die die must try'.'
'With all the policy instruments and programmes in place now, it is a time for action...to work company by company, worker by worker, job by job.'