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Massive Retrenchments in Singapore Due to COVID-19

What lies ahead of those affected by the recent string of layoffs?

As Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrinks by a historic 13.2% year on year, retrenchments have abounded. On 18 August, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced that it would be laying off 140 employees from its media sales and magazines operations due to the negative “impact COVID-19 has had on advertising revenues”. This figure is, as of yet, the highest when compared to those of past exercises held by the company in October 2017 and October 2019.

According to the World Economic Forum, a decline in advertising revenues can be largely attributed to “changing consumer behaviour”. In a troubling time when social distancing and stay-at-home measures are the norm, digital consumption (i.e., use of social platforms and streaming services and gaming) has risen dramatically, thus allowing digital advertising to take precedence over its print counterpart.

Furthermore, in a debilitating recession, advertisers have been looking to speed up the sales process by focusing on purchase immediacy through “direct response campaigns”.

But advertising has not been the only sector to be severely hit by the pandemic. The hospitality industry has also faced its fair share of large-scale layoffs, with Millennium Hotels and Resorts making the headlines. A day after SPH’s announcement, the said hospitality management group retrenched 15.2% of its Singapore-based workforce. As an offset, the company also reduced its foreign employee dependency by 45 per cent, resulting in a net increase in its “Singapore core” from 61 per cent in January to 69 per cent on 19 August.

drastic drop in the number of tourists is to blame for this phenomenon. In April, visitor arrivals in Singapore dropped to 748 for the first time in history. Compared to a year ago that saw 1.6 million tourists hit our shores, this counts for nearly a 100 per cent dropMoreover, the number of tourists from January to April decreased by 58% compared with the same period last year.

Consequently, the average occupancy rate of gazetted hotels plunged by 27.2 percentage points to 58.6 percent, contributing to a 30.9% fall in overall revenue in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period last year.

Uncertainty creates opportunities

Corporate loyalty can often turn into disillusionment when retrenchment suddenly strikes. Take it from Madam Josephine Low, a 75-year-old lady who was laid off after a near 10-year career at a hotel.

Maybe, the trick to fighting structural unemployment is not upskilling but reskilling.

After all, Mr Andy Yap, once a digital design director of an events company, has now turned to food delivery via mountain bike after he had been axed during a retrenchment exercise.

He claimed, “‘Food delivery is pandemic-and recession-resistant.’”

Governmental schemes

Currently, the most prominent reskilling programme rolled out by the government is SGUnited Skills.

Under this scheme, trainees can learn skills relevant to their preferred industries which will help improve their employability. These certifiable courses are delivered by Continuing Education and Training (CET) centres, including Institutes of Higher Learning. As bonuses, they will also receive a training allowance of $1,200 per month for the duration of the programme, to cover basic subsistence expenses and its highly subsidised course fees will be deductible from their SkillsFuture Credit.

For those who have been recently retrenched, it would be wise to pair this scheme with the Enhanced Hiring Incentive to maximise their chances of getting employed upon completing their reskilling training.

SkillsFuture Singapore

The latter scheme, which is an upgraded version of its predecessor (Hiring Incentive), boasts a salary support of 40% for six months, capped at $12,000 in total for employers who hire a local worker aged 40 and above, and a salary support of 20% for six months, capped at $6,000 in total for employers who hire a local worker aged below 40. These are assuming that the said hired workers have undergone eligible reskilling or training programmes.

But, given the 6- to 12-month length of the SGUnited Skills programme, such would not make for a feasible short-term solution for those who have borne the brunt of massive retrenchment exercises.

Gig economy

With employment agencies unable to cope with the piling application forms following the widespread displacement of workers from their jobs, the once go-to alternative for finding a job has quickly now become a bottleneck to steer clear of. Instead, freelancing has replaced these agencies as a quick fix for those who have lost their jobs.

The two main advantages that freelancing has over the traditional corporate setting are greater efficiency and lower costs. Besides, jobs like food delivery courier and freelance stylist/designer entail the freedom to schedule one’s working week and an extremely short time lag between the application for gigs and the hiring (no traditional intermediaries like job interviews and contracts).

The only downside is that freelancers are not entitled to health benefits. Fortunately, on 4 November 2019, the government enacted the contribute-as-you-earn (CAYE) scheme to divert a portion of their earnings to their MediSave accounts, which would aid in the payment of their medical bills where applicable.

This scheme, however, applies only to those working in the public sector.

COVID-19 has challenged the paradigm that longstanding employment is permanent and has forced us to value subsistence over complacency. And while the future may look bleak from where we are standing, all is not lost: reskilling and job opportunities are out there for us to fully utilise provided we do not give up on searching for them.

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