17 January 2014

Tripartism in action - Helping Workers Deal with Retrenchment

17 January 2014

For many, the close of a year usually evokes a festive spirit, with Christmas and New Year celebrations. Unfortunately, this was not the case for 500 HGST Singapore employees who were retrenched in Dec 2013, as part of the company’s plan to maintain its cost competitiveness. 

The retrenchment was a sobering reminder that economic restructuring can come with a cost. Although Singapore’s unemployment rate is among the lowest internationally, every retrenchment is painful for the simple reason that workers’ livelihoods are affected. 

Different helping hands

That is why a strong tripartite effort by the unions, employers and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is instrumental in helping retrenched workers secure another job as soon as possible. 

Unions play a crucial role. Companies with good labour-management relationships keep their unions informed of their business performance and forecasts. This enables the unions to understand the company’s challenges, to identify how best the company can cope with excess manpower and to save as many jobs as possible. Such early engagement is important so that retrenchment does not come as a total surprise to union members. In HGST’s case, the company had already informed the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) in early November 2013 about their plans to restructure. To support companies underdoing restructuring, MOM, NTUC and SNEF have developed a set of Tripartite Guidelines on Managing Excess Manpower listing recommendations on possible cost-cutting measures to manage excess manpower.

Where retrenchment is unavoidable, one of the key priorities is to ensure adequate help is available for displaced workers to find suitable jobs. Unions play a major role here by working proactively with retrenching companies to provide employment assistance to affected workers. In this instance, HGST management and UWEEI had worked with the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to help affected workers secure jobs through a job fair on 16 January 2014. 

Another key role that unions play is in negotiating retrenchment benefits in their collective agreements with companies, to ensure fair compensation and treatment for affected workers. Most unionised companies abide by these negotiated retrenchment terms. Some may even offer their workers additional benefits. HGST Singapore, for example, extended its workers’ hospital and surgical insurance coverage and paid for their union membership dues for an additional three months, till March 2014.

Other than the unions, MOM and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) also play a role in employment facilitation for retrenched or displaced workers. MOM refers these workers to WDA and its Career Centres for training advice and employment assistance services.WDA also works with Family Service Centres and other community counselling providers to render the necessary emotional support for unemployed workers, through activities in locations close to the community.

The importance of continuing education and training

Despite the efforts of the tripartite partners in helping retrenched and displaced workers, adjustments can be tough for the workers. Many have spent their entire career in the same industry or company. Being retrenched can be a traumatic experience as it means a drastic departure from what they were used to.  But there are also others, like Mr Lim Herh Kim, who see this as an opportunity for them to upskill, and to embark on an exciting career change. 

Mr Lim Herh Kim had worked for a big machine manufacturer for more than half his life before he was retrenched in 2009. Instead of trying to find a job in the same industry, he decided to try something new and pursued a Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) Diploma in Tourism through WDA’s Professional Conversion Programme. He was 54 then. Today, he is a director at Asia Pacific Tourism & Cultural Council Pte Ltd, and is happy that he has had opportunities to be involved in key tourism events such as the Barclays Singapore Open.

As Singapore’s economy restructures to become more manpower-lean and productivity-driven, some consolidation is inevitable and probably necessary. That is why employees should not overlook the importance of improving their employability and skill-sets throughout their careers. For those who are unfortunately affected by retrenchment, we must make sure that they emerge from these difficult times ready to seize new opportunities.

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