Help urged for workers to adjust to rising automation

April 6, 201610:11 am295 views

More should be done to protect workers — especially those at the lower rungs of the value chain — who are most susceptible to losing their jobs as more companies embrace automation, said Members of Parliament (MPs) yesterday on the second day of debate on this year’s Budget.

While they lauded the push for technological advancements — through the new S$400 million Automation Support Package — as a way to spur higher productivity among small and medium enterprises, MPs identified different groups of workers who could need help to adjust in the new environment. They added that it is vital for the SkillsFuture initiatives to reach these workers and succeed in helping them to upgrade their skills and keep their livelihoods.

Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) said increasing the use of automation is a positive step because it is closely linked to higher productivity, but asked: “The next question is what is the impact on employment? Economists have different views on this — some say it will eliminate jobs but at the same time also create new jobs.”

Citing a study that found evidence of automation causing job losses, especially among low-skilled workers, but also some mid-skilled ones, Mr Faisal suggested raising the SkillsFuture credit from the current S$500 to help low-wage workers afford courses that could help them upgrade their skills.

Also speaking up for low-wage workers was labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), who called for SkillsFuture outreach efforts to be customised to mature workers who have lower academic qualifications. He added that beyond training these workers to be adept at using technology, there must be jobs on the market that match their new profiles.

“This can be achieved through job redesign in the clean, green and safe sectors. Increasingly, more service providers would like to adopt greater technology to reduce manpower requirement and improve productivity. Their workers are also being trained to operate these equipment but service buyers must be receptive to different ways of service providers delivering their service using technology,” Mr Zainal said.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said that as automation becomes commonplace for businesses, low-skilled workers might not be the only ones vulnerable to displacement.

There are studies predicting that professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) are more likely to lose their relevance, compared to “skilled personnel” such as engineers and plumbers.

Mr Zaqy called for a “clear and concerted industrial policy” to push more Singaporeans to take part in the SkillsFuture initiative. “For the educated group, we must also start looking at the depth of our skills developments, and focus on mastery in areas that are not so easily replaced by artificial intelligence and robots.”

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said that, in view of the growing number of PMETs getting retrenched, the Government should incentivise employers to keep these experienced white-collar workers. He suggested a review of the quota and ratio of S Pass and Employment Pass for firms that would be favourable to Singaporean workers.

“The middle and older PMETs are particularly hard-hit. This is a group usually with mortgages to service and still supporting children in school and elderly parents — the typical sandwiched class. I am deeply concerned … as they tend to be vulnerable to economic cyclical troughs, becoming the easy choice of the company’s cost-cutting restructuring measures,” he said.

Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) added: “SkillsFuture is one of the best answers to prepare our businesses and people for the future. There is, however, an urgency to move the whole nation more quickly into the SkillsFuture mindset and action.”

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