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S’pore bankers worry as layoffs start to mount

SINGAPORE — Just three months into his new job at a big European bank in Singapore, Christopher (not his real name) is looking nervously over his shoulder at work: People around him are here one day and gone the next. The mood is stressful, he said, and it does not help that those who have escaped the pink slip have to pick up the slack. He has been putting in 12-hour days, compared with nine to 10 hours previously.

S’pore bankers worry as layoffs start to mount

ANZ has laid off some of its employees in Singapore over the past year. Banks around the world have been shedding jobs against the backdrop of a weak economic outlook. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — Just three months into his new job at a big European bank in Singapore, Christopher (not his real name) is looking nervously over his shoulder at work: People around him are here one day and gone the next. The mood is stressful, he said, and it does not help that those who have escaped the pink slip have to pick up the slack. He has been putting in 12-hour days, compared with nine to 10 hours previously.

Likewise, Margaret, who works in a Singapore bank, said the mood at her office is sombre. She recently requested a transfer from sales to a middle office role to improve her job security.

“I have a few front office colleagues who were asked to leave within my few months in this new office. But it was not from my team. I guess they were not bringing in the sales they were supposed to. I was on leave on a Monday and when I came back on Tuesday they were not there any more. Those in the back office such as operations and settlements, should be more worried as those jobs are most likely to go first,” said Christopher, who joined his current employer three months ago from another foreign bank. Christopher is in his 30s, works in a middle office role and earns a fixed salary of more than S$60,000 a year.

“It is quite stressful. We all know that banks are cutting costs. I think twice about everything I do now: ‘Is this action going to put me in a compromising position’ or ‘Will I be on the chopping board if I do this’. I will constantly be thinking for myself,” he added.

Margaret, who is in her late 20s, said: “I switched from the frontline to middle office for stability as I do not foresee myself working in sales in the long run … There may be a few sighs here and there in the office but I think people in this sector have learned to work through it. It is just like any other times (in life) when the odds are against you.”

Banks around the world have been shedding jobs against the backdrop of a weak economic outlook, volatile markets and stricter capital rules that have eroded earnings. The push for digital transformation has also eroded the need for some jobs.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Barclays and Standard Chartered Bank have let go some of their employees in Singapore over the past year. While some bankers brushed it off as a cyclical downturn, others are worried that technological disruptions could result in permanent job losses.

“It’s quite scary if it would be me (to be retrenched). I would ration the money, spend it wisely and probably build up my skills set. I have to plan ahead: What if I am 45 and do not have a new job? However, some of my friends who were retrenched were quite happy with the payout. If you are getting retrenched and you have a few years of experience, you will get six to eight months of payout,” said Christopher.

Technology advancements such as Internet and mobile banking have increased convenience for customers, but put a strain on the rice bowls of bankers.

Mr Ng, a UOB banker specialising in financial advisory services, said that there are fewer walk-in customers now, affecting his commission from sales. “With the introduction of Internet banking, many don’t see a point in making a trip down to the branch. I have not earned less, but that is because I work harder during bad times to make up for it,” he said. Mr Ng earns about S$50,000 to S$70,000 a year, depending on performance.

Ms Lee, who works in PR for a local bank, added: “In the short term I have no fear of being obsolete, but in the longer term, I am. The banking industry is changing so quickly with technology and I feel that in order to keep up I would need to broaden my skills set.”

Other segments of the financial industry are also feeling the heat. A financial adviser, who wished to be known as Mr Lee, said his clients are worried about their jobs and less willing to buy investment policies.

“People are taking a longer time to consider insurance products. They are not sure how long they can retain their current jobs, and are uncertain of their future. It used to take a couple of weeks to clinch a deal but now it takes a few months,” said Mr Lee, whose clients are mainly working professionals in their 30s to mid-40s.

Despite the worry on many people’s minds, the usual bustle of the Central Business District has not seen a dwindling down in activities. At Raffles Place, the queues at moneychangers and eateries are still long during the day, and come sunset, colleagues drink late into the night at nearby pubs.

Not everyone is downbeat about the current market uncertainty. Claudia, who is in her early 20s, quit her banking job to join a brokerage firm a few months ago. She describes the current situation as “the exciting times”.

“The economy is bad now but it is not my concern. I took a slight pay cut to join a trading company as I heard about the potential of the commission. In my opinion, this is a good time to enter the down market and take the chance to earn a lot of money,” said Claudia.

Likewise, a director in a foreign bank with 15 years of experience in the industry, said he has experienced the various cycles to hit the finance sector, and that they are simply part-and-parcel of working in this industry.

Requesting anonymity, the director, who said he earns about S$250,000 a year, does not expect his pay to be affected despite the lean times. “There will be business to make, whether it is in good or bad times. Even though I do not expect exceptional results for this year, we will still be able to ride through this patch,” he added.

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