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​Temporary job redeployment may not avert layoffs later

Published on: 02-May-2020

As the novel coronavirus ravages the economy, industries such as aviation have taken a severe beating - pushing some workers in these sectors to in-demand areas like healthcare. 

But with some roles added as a result of the pandemic limited in number and only temporary, labour market watchers warn that job redeployment is not enough to avert a looming layoff tsunami.

Since March, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) has facilitated the transfer of work permit holders across companies and sectors. 

It now plans to extend the ManpowerConnect redeployment scheme to local workers, with support from other industry groups and government agency Workforce Singapore (WSG).

The benefits of redeployment include staff retention, skills upgrading, organisational flexibility, and cost savings from bringing on new employees, said Foo Maw Der, a professor at Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School.

Besides the emergence of novel coronavirus roles such as temperature screening - which SBF chief executive Ho Meng Kit said require "largely generic" skills - restrictions on the return of work permit holders from abroad, as well as exit controls imposed by source markets such as China and Malaysia, have resulted in job openings.

Shrinking employment in the wholesale and retail trade, food and beverage services and accommodation was offset in the first quarter by growth in healthcare, public administration and professional services, according to early job market data from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

And efforts are under way to facilitate redeployment, with Prof Foo citing industry-level moves such as Singapore Airlines sending cabin crew to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

As job opportunities are expected to decline, policymakers also introduced the SGUnited Jobs Initiative in February with the aim of creating 10,000 positions this year - including short-term, temporary positions as Covid-19 ramps up business operations or disrupts the supply of labour.

Under the initiative, WSG last week launched a virtual career fair just for essential services workers. 
Salaries start at S$1,800 for the 1,500 roles on offer, such as occupational therapists, warehouse assistants, store manager trainees and health attendants.

In some industries, staff demand is red-hot. Mr Ho noted that private employers such as supermarkets or other providers of essential goods and services still need workers.

For instance, mail carrier Singapore Post had a shortfall of workers after "a good number of employees" were quarantined or on leave of absence when a Covid-19 cluster emerged at SingPost Centre in March. It has since opened posts of up to a few months to more than 300 people.

"These individuals come from a myriad of industries (that) have excess manpower right now, including aviation and logistics," said SingPost spokesperson Robin Goh. 
"We also worked with recruitment agencies (that) have a ready supply of temporary staff, many of whom are furloughed."

At HMI Institute of Health Sciences, an approved healthcare support trainer, about 75 per cent of trainees are tipped to land placements within four months of graduation. 

"The Covid-19 outbreak and global measures to prevent its spread (have) had a toll on the economy and reduced job opportunities in various industries," said executive director Tee Soo Kong. 
"We do see an increase in enquiries on the courses we provide."

Of the 187 students who joined HMI Institute in the first quarter, Mr Tee said that 86 per cent came from non-healthcare industries, such as retail, manufacturing or construction.

Still, "the fear is that some jobs could be lost permanently", according to Andrew Tan, country manager of hiring platform Wantedly.

Redeployment is not always cost-saving and can entail its own logistical challenges too. Mr Tan noted that reskilling may carry costs such as the time required for training.

Indeed, with a pandemic raging, Mr Tee said HMI Institute had to "fast-track skills training" while facing circuit-breaker movement controls.

Meanwhile, Prof Foo brought up the issue of who would be liable for overtime pay, injury compensation and other entitlements, when workers are shared between organisations with different insurance or collective agreements.

And, even with policy support efforts, the Monetary Authority of Singapore this week warned that "the large, abrupt shock to the Singapore economy is still likely to cause retrenchments and unemployment to rise".

The MOM, when asked, did not say how many of the planned SGUnited openings will be just temporary.

But BofA Asean economist Mohamed Faiz Nagutha, who estimates that job losses could hit 300,000 this year, surmised: "The impact of such redeployments in assuaging labour costs and layoffs will be very small. 

"Furthermore, with the enhanced circuit-breaker measures, most of these redeployed workers will almost certainly be deemed non-essential and asked to stay at home."

Still, Mr Ho, from the SBF, told BT: "These redeployment efforts, in the short term, will provide some immediate relief for workers whose livelihoods have been disrupted.

"For the longer term, we urge workers to also use this time to reskill and upskill themselves so they can be better prepared when recovery comes."

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