Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the Ministerial Statement on Additional Support Measures in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic
Sir, I thank the government for providing a Resilience and Solidarity Budget that provides increased assistance to many Singaporeans in this time of great need.
Many residents have shared how appreciative they are and thank the government for this.
Sir, I have four points to raise in relation to this Resilience and Solidarity Budget.
Extend COVID-19 Support Grant to those on unpaid leave and reduced working hours
My first point is about those on unpaid leave and reduced working hours.
The Resilience and Solidarity Budget provides much support to Singaporeans who have lost their jobs and for the self-employed. But we need to do more for those who remain in employment but have nonetheless taken a big hit in their incomes.
Such workers can either be workers forced to take pay cuts or go on unpaid leave, or hourly workers who have lost shifts and hours.
I recently received an email from my resident, whose employer cut her hours from full-time to part-time. Overnight she lost 50% of her income.
Another resident has been put on unpaid leave for at least 3 months. Overnight she lost 100% of her income.
These are not isolated cases and I’m sure all members in this House have received similar calls for help.
The only new scheme applicable to this group of workers in this Budget is the Temporary Relief Fund. But it provides only a one-time cash grant of $500.
Sir, for some workers, it will seem more profitable to lose their jobs, as they can then collect both the Temporary Relief Fund and the COVID-19 Support Grant for the unemployed. I’m sure we do not want people to do that.
Can the government provide more financial support for those who have lost income but remain in employment?
For a start, we can expand the COVID-19 Support Grant to supplement the monthly income of these workers up to a cap of $800 and up to three months or when they are back to full employment.
This is especially important for those put on unpaid leave. After all, those on unpaid leave essentially become unemployed for the months they are on unpaid leave.
The reply might be that we are helping employers retain workers through the Jobs Support Scheme but to save at least 25% of salary costs, there might still be employers who will prefer to put workers on unpaid leave.
Sir, it is not likely that the damage to our economy will be over any time soon. We should provide some level of wage stability for those lucky enough to find themselves still employed but with zero or significantly reduced income.
Introduce a COVID-19-related childcare leave
My second point is about childcare leave.
Parents working in essential services and key economic sectors perform a duty for our nation as they continue going into their workplaces in this time of global pandemic.
However, there is a big, unanswered question of what happens when the children of these parents are required to stay at home due to COVID-related health symptoms, school closures, Leaves of Absences or Stay-Home Notices.
These parents do not have the option to work from home, yet they may have a young child at home during working hours. Some will be lucky enough to have alternative caregivers and caring employers. But what about those who do not?
We should remember that the legal entitlement of childcare leave is already insufficient during a regular year. As I mentioned in my Budget speech, parents exhaust it during mandatory preschool closures and during their children’s sickness.
Now, in this most irregular year, school closures and stay-home requirements last for weeks. How can they possibly have enough childcare leave to take?
The only option left for them is unpaid leave. Many parents have told me this is indeed what they are taking, but in this business climate, they worry they will lose their jobs if they take too much unpaid leave.
To help such parents, I hope we can introduce a government-paid childcare leave for parents who are working in essential services or key economic sectors and whose young children are affected by COVID-related stay-home requirements.
There are currently no protections for them, and we need to bear in mind that many have no alternatives and do not have the money to hire additional help. They desperately need this COVID-related childcare leave so they can keep their jobs and be there for their children.
Sir, we cannot leave it to employers and employees to work out amicable arrangements to balance the business needs with employees’ childcare needs in this difficult time. In this difficult time, the government has to step in.
Support for single unwed parents
My third point is a short and simple one.
As part of our Care and Support Package, we are giving $300 in cash to every adult Singaporean who has a Singaporean child aged 20 years old and below. Many single unwed parents have written to me asking if they qualify for this.
Can the government confirm that single unwed parents qualify? I think we can all agree that these dark days are not a time for discrimination, and all parents deserve the care and support regardless of their marital status.
Single unwed parents are in an especially tight spot. Their households are single-income. They do not have an additional pair of helping hands. Also, because the median income of single unwed mothers under 35 years old was already $600, they will lack job security and are likely to face lost wages.
They need this cash assistance. They, and many other Singaporeans, will also benefit from all the other measures I mentioned before: more financial support for those on unpaid leave and reduced working hours, increased telecommuting and a COVID-19-related childcare leave.
Providing support to migrant workers
My final point is about our migrant friends, workers who have left their homes to come and build and clean ours.
News has emerged that two migrant worker dormitories, S11 @ Punggol and Westlite in Toh Guan have been gazetted as isolation areas.
Many Singaporeans have contacted me to share their concerns for the safety and wellbeing of these workers.
I must first thank Minister Josephine for her comprehensive Facebook post on the measures taken to prevent transmissions and to ensure that the basic needs of migrant workers are met including food, necessities, salary, and medical care.
Migrant worker dormitories are very densely packed and the workers live in very close proximity. I understand that measures have been taken to implement safe distancing measures and to thin out the dormitories.
However, even with these measures, the risk of transmission is very high. The issue is the conditions the workers live in.
Last night, I received photos from migrant workers living in one of these dorms and the conditions are still far from optimal. We have to do more, much more to improve the current living conditions. This is vital to stop the outbreak in these dormitories.
Beyond the measure we are taking now, I also sincerely hope MOM will do a complete review and ensure that our migrant workers’ living conditions are improved significantly.
I’m glad Minister Josephine agrees with this and has given her word that action will be taken.
Next, many workers are also afraid that they have been infected with COVID-19.
To supplement the measures already taken, can we consider proactively testing the workers in dormitories with infected workers, starting with those who lived in closer proximity to the infected workers? This would assist in definitively identifying those infected and quickly isolating them to prevent a further outbreak.
I understand there are limitations for doing this nationwide. Can we do more extensive testing on a limited scale for this high-risk population? This would help to keep Singaporeans safe too and help calm the workers who are extremely worried.
Lastly, as with Singaporeans, the workers are also worried about their livelihoods.
Minister Josephine has said that MOM will work with employers to ensure that quarantined workers continue to be paid and that their period of absence from work is treated as paid hospitalisation leave as part of the workers’ statutory leave eligibility. This has provided a lot of assurance to the workers and they very thankful. I hope MOM will follow up and ensure that every worker is paid.
DPM Heng also announced yesterday that we will waive the monthly Foreign Worker Levy due in April and also provide employers with a Foreign Worker Levy Rebate of $750 for each work permit or S pass holder.
This will help employers pay and take care of the upkeep of their workers, and prepare their workforce to restart when the circuit breaker is lifted.
Can I ask whether we will be ensuring that these rebates are passed down to the workers and how will we ensure that the workers are paid their salaries and not put on unpaid leave?
Sir, I stand in support of this Budget.
My speech was actually much longer, but a lot of the points I was going to raise were addressed by the announcements made by the government last week.
I thank all the Ministries and Statutory Boards and all of our frontline workers for working so hard to keep all of us safe. I thank them for responding so quickly to concerns raised by the public and introducing measures that will make a huge difference in the lives of fellow Singaporeans.
As we march forward with a supplementary budget that targets aid at specific groups, we must make sure that no one slip through the cracks. Let us make sure that everyone make it through this crisis together.
Together, we will beat this virus. Thank you.
Watch the speech here