National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Ng Chee Meng explained that the labour movement is involved in administering one of the Government’s COVID-19 relief schemes “simply because we care”.
Mr Ng, a ruling party politician who also serves as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was responding to Worker’s Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim’s questions on NTUC’s role in the Government’s SIRS (Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme) initiative.
In her parliamentary speech on the Fortitude Budget, Ms Lim asked why NTUC is administering SIRS in place of the Government especially when it involves public funds from Singapore’s reserves. Questioning whether this move would set a precedent for the Government to farm out public schemes to external parties, the opposition politician asked:
“SIRS involves public funds; to be exact, SIRS involves the use of Past Reserves. Who should be in charge of the scheme?
“The government has stated that MOM oversees the scheme, but NTUC helps administer appeals for those who do not automatically qualify. From the cases we have seen, it is NTUC that is fronting all communications in appeals, while the role of MOM is not visible.”
“From a governance perspective, why was there a need to outsource the administration of SIRS appeals to NTUC in the first place? Was this done due to a lack of manpower, or other reasons? Will this set a precedent for the government to outsource its schemes to external parties to manage? What does this mean for government accountability?”
Responding to Ms Lim’s concern, Mr Ng suggested that the WP perhaps “does not quite remember the history of why NTUC stepped into this space”.
Explaining that NTUC was involved in helping self-employed workers who were affected by the COVID crisis as far back as January this year, Mr Ng said: “So why is NTUC in this space? Simply because we care. Why are we in this space? Because we have some capabilities to augment the Government in extending this help to taxi drivers or freelancers as quickly as possible.”
Mr Ng added that NTUC became involved with SIRS at the behest of the Ministry of Finance. He said: “And I recall one late evening, when the Ministry of Finance called me up, and I went to the Treasury.
“And at the request of Government to administer this SIRS fund, I gladly informed Ministry of Finance that NTUC will take up this role, not because we want to be at the centre of things but because we thought we have the capabilities to do our part as a tripartite partner.”
Asserting that NTUC should play a part in Government initiatives like the National Jobs Council in the spirit of tripartism, Mr Ng continued:
“So, if we look at the National Jobs Council that they set up – should NTUC not be in it? Should the Singapore National Employers Federation not be in it? If all of us are not together in this fight against COVID-19 as a team, then I think we would have lost the capability unique to Singapore.
“Yes, the Government has put up the hundred billion dollar budget but I think there is space for business owners, NTUC and the workers to play a part. Tripartism is a strength. And we should ride on this strength to execute this strategy, that I’ve mentioned, well and to the extent possible, remain adaptive and learn lessons along the way.”
During her speech, Ms Lim questioned the purpose and fairness of SIRS and pointed out that the authorities received over 60,000 appeals by self-employed persons who were affected by the COVID crisis but are ineligible for the support scheme.
One of the eligibility criteria for SIRS is the annual value of the property one is living in. Asking what this criteria has to do with whether the person has suffered serious income disruption, Ms Lim revealed that she knows several residents who are disqualified from SIRS simply because they are living in their parents’ homes or are renting.
Asserting that these self-employed Singaporeans cannot apply for relief even though their incomes have been disrupted or completely displaced by the COVID crisis, Ms Lim pointed out that other self-employed persons whose incomes are unaffected by COVID-19 have received full SIRS payments due to the auto-inclusion nature of the scheme.
Ms Lim said that NTUC has outright rejected some appeals, approved some appeals and approved other appeals with a reduced payout amount, like S$800 per month instead of S$1,000 per month.
Questioning what grounds NTUC relies on to make these decisions, Ms Lim asked: “Suffice to say, these disparate outcomes have caused frustration and feelings of arbitrariness and unfairness. Questions asked include: How does NTUC decide? What are the criteria for allowing or rejecting appeals?”
Alluding to these concerns, Mr Ng said: “Well, are there things that we can do better? I think in time to come when we can settle the immediate issues that we have to deal with COVID-19 and the transformative things that NTUC is embarking on, I will humbly say that yes, we will look at areas where we can do better.
“But as it stands now, NTUC has extended care fund to help all workers. And likewise, we would like to do our part to help freelancers or self-employed persons deal with the current situation as well.”
Mr Ng added that NTUC has also instituted a SEP (Self-employed Person) training fund to help self-employed workers upgrade themselves and provide feedback on the Government’s COVID-19 support packages.
He said: “I am humble enough to say that NTUC could have done better in some of the SIRS things that we have done. But let us draw those lessons when the time comes. But immediately now, let us extend assistance to as many as possible.”
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