More measures needed to help businesses during coronavirus outbreak: ST-UOB round table

SINGAPORE – The Budget delivered a slew of measures to help tide businesses over until the coronavirus outbreak subsides but experts said more still needs to be done to help a broad range of enterprises stay afloat.

Their views on the initiatives and where they may fall short were aired at a round table on Wednesday (Feb 19) organised by The Straits Times and the United Overseas Bank (UOB) and moderated by ST associate editor Vikram Khanna.

Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit said a survey of companies last week – of which 85 per cent were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – found that about 80 per cent said revenue would drop by as much as half due to the coronavirus outbreak.

He noted: “They’re asking for assistance from the Government in terms of tax rebate, returning some cash and because some of their foreign workers are stuck in China and they have no access to labour.

“They’re spending a lot more on manpower cost because of leave of absence, medical certificates, extra cleaning and essential services. These are exceptional times for the businesses.”

Mr Ho added that besides tourism- and transport-related sectors, other industries like manufacturing and shipping are affected because of the disruption to supply chains, factory work and transport in China.

He noted that enterprises had also hoped for help with foreign worker levies and quotas, but the Budget cut the quota for S Pass workers in the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors. The foreign worker levy rates will also be maintained for all sectors this year.

S Pass workers refer to mid-skilled foreigners earning at least $2,400 a month.

UOB senior economist Alvin Liew said it was good that the Government has a long-term view to reduce Singapore’s reliance on foreign labour but more measures could have been introduced to help cushion the short-term impact of the virus outbreak.

“For the construction, marine shipyard and process sectors, they use a lot of foreign labour,” he noted.

“A lot of their workers are also stuck somewhere else, so they may require more assistance. Perhaps some short-term easing of the levy rates could help them, but unfortunately we did not see it this time.”

Mr Ho added that it is not easy to get locals to work in such sectors and companies may not be able to fill jobs that would usually be done by a S Pass worker.

This could leave the company no choice but to relocate out of Singapore, he said.

He urged the Government to allow some companies to bring in S pass workers, provided that they commit to training their local workforce, for example.

Panellists also discussed the possibility of workers being laid off if the coronavirus situation worsens.

Labour MP Patrick Tay, who is also the National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general, encouraged companies to “cut costs to save jobs, not cut jobs to save costs”.

He said: “I think (the Budget support package) is also a catalyst to companies and encouragement for them to send their workers for training and upgrading in this interim if business is poor, utilise some of these training subsidies and funding.”

He recalled being involved in a programme during the 2003 Sars crisis, where workers who didn’t have employer-supported training got help from the NTUC. Workers such as freelance tour guides and airline cabin crew went on training programmes and could return to jobs with new certifications and skills after the virus outbreak.

“I think there’s a need for us to revisit that and redo that.”

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, an associate professor of economics at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, suggested that workers could be redeployed, as some industries like food and beverage companies that are reliant on tourists are harder hit, while other roles like part-time temperature takers require manpower.

“We can usefully redeploy workers in those sectors affected by a cut in demand; they can return to their jobs when the recovery comes, but in the meantime, can they have a livelihood?”

But businesses also have to do their bit by protecting one another, Prof Theseira noted.

He cited the relationship between tenant and landlords: “For example, when businesses sign lease agreements to rent space, if you have a shortfall or drop in revenue, all the risk is borne by the tenant.

“The landlord collects their rent anyway. In a crisis like this, I think we need to share risks more broadly across society and different groups.”

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