News analysis: In view of tech sector’s layoffs, should PMETs be better protected from retrenchment?
SINGAPORE — Mass layoffs in the technology sector have been happening in droves, with Singapore-based restaurant reservation platform Chope being the latest player to announce cuts.
- Professionals, managers, executives and technicians are a large segment of the workforce
- The recent layoffs have called into question their protection as workers
- A handful of tech workers interviewed by TODAY had mixed feelings about the severance packages they were given
- They were unsure about who to turn to when they got axed since they were not part of a union
- An analyst said that regulations to enhance protection for PMETs may have consequences for the country’s economy
SINGAPORE — Mass layoffs in the technology sector have been happening one after another, with Singapore-based restaurant online reservation site Chope being the latest to announce cuts in manpower.
Some of the people who were retrenched told TODAY that they had mixed feelings about the severance packages they were given. Out of five former tech employees interviewed, three felt they should have received higher compensation sums.
By and large, they were also unsure about who to turn to when they got axed by their companies because none of them was part of a union.
This warrants a look at labour protection for workers who are professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs). This group is a large segment of the workforce here.
Based on the latest figures released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) earlier this month, they showed that the proportion of PMETs has gone up in the last year alone.
PMETs make up 64 per cent of all employed residents in 2022, up from 62 per cent in 2021.
WHAT PROTECTION IS THERE FOR RETRENCHED WORKERS?
In Singapore, companies are allowed to retrench employees at any time and are not mandated to provide retrenchment benefits.
Human resource expert Adrian Choo said: “The Singapore Government believes in a free-market economy and that means being able to hire and fire workers as management deems fit.”
However, there are laws regarding the conduct for retrenchment, such as the requirement for companies to notify MOM about the cuts within five working days after the affected employees have been informed, the experts said.
There is also the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment issued by MOM that employers can use as a guide when considering severance packages, such as giving two weeks to one month of salary for each year of service to workers with at least two years of service.
The advisory also proposed that employees who have worked for a shorter period could be granted voluntary goodwill payment, subject to the company’s finances at the time of retrenchment.
DOES BEING PART OF A UNION HELP?
Unions can collectively negotiate for better rights and conditions for workers, in the form of higher salaries, safer workplace conditions or better retrenchment benefits.
But the real bargaining power of a union lies in the threat of industrial or collective action, which may be a challenge given how diverse PMETs’ job roles and employment conditions are, the experts said.
Associate Professor Walter Theseira, an economics lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said: “When you have a very diverse workforce, in terms of professional background and roles, even if you do have unionisation, it's really not clear that you have the motivation for collective action because it's less likely that workers have common interests.”
He added that given the employment conditions of PMETs, their work is usually highly individualistic since they often seek to develop their own career paths and negotiate their own employment terms. Therefore, there is less of an incentive for PMETs to use collective channels such as unions for representation.
However, there are well-known exceptions to this, Assoc Prof Theseira said, giving the example of unions for teachers.
“But this is typically because there is a great deal of common interest across these groups of PMET workers, which may not exist in other types of PMET work.”
Despite this, the analysts said that there are still some benefits to being unionised.
Veteran human resources practitioner Adrian Tan said that becoming a member of a union helps in providing direction and counsel if needed.
Joining a union may also be helpful for workers to tap the broader network of PMET workers in similar positions.
Mr Desmond Choo, assistant secretary-general at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), said in response to TODAY’s queries that NTUC has been working with tech companies that have retrenched workers, through its affiliated unions such as the Creative Media and Publishing Union.
In the case of online shopping channel Shopee, Mr Choo said that NTUC worked closely with the Creative Media and Publishing Union on appropriate compensation packages for affected workers according to market norms.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO BETTER PROTECT PMET WORKERS?
Regulations can be imposed to enhance protection for PMETs but these may have economic consequences, the analysts said.
It would make jobs more secure but it could in turn affect Singapore’s economic competitiveness, because regulations may make it harder to attract major companies to generate new investment and jobs here.
The approach that Singapore has taken when it comes to employment legislation has been to maintain a flexible labour market driven by the needs of the economy, rather than to impose regulations that may restrict flexibility in the labour market.
Assoc Prof Theseira said that too much labour protection also hinders effective human resource management practices.
Companies may find it tough to manage workers’ performance and also be reluctant to hire people on a permanent basis.
“In Singapore, we have protection against dismissal based on age and anecdotally, this makes employers more reluctant to hire workers closer to the retirement age,” he added.
Ultimately, the best form of protection for PMETs is to keep individual skills and experience competitive.
Assoc Prof Theseira said: “Given the highly individualistic nature of much of the work that PMETs do, the best protection is to ensure that your experience and skills remain competitive in the market.
“The idea, generally speaking, is to ensure that you remain employable in the industry, rather than at a specific firm; or employable in a different industry, rather than just the one you are in.”