Preparing ASEAN’s Workforce for the Future of Work

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Preparing ASEAN’s Workforce for the Future of Work
Aubeck Kam
Permanent Secretary, Singapore Ministry of Manpower; Senior Labour Officials Meeting Leader of Singapore
1 Jun 2020

ASEAN, led by Singapore, has an upcoming initiative to support ASEAN Member States to prepare for the future of work in a “new COVID-normal” by leveraging a skilled workforce, embracing technology, and providing safe and decent work for all, supported by harmonious industrial relations.

In recent years, we witnessed a changing world of work. There have been many global disruptions within traditional business models and employment arrangements. Technology has also changed our jobs and how businesses operate—the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and data analytics means that companies and individuals are increasingly turning towards the digital economy to conduct business. Daily online transactions, from banking services to the purchase of essential goods and services, are growing at a phenomenal rate.

These innovations have heightened workers’ anxiety levels over the future impact of technology on their jobs. Many workers have come to realise that their skillsets do not match the requirements of future job opportunities, even if these skillsets were recently acquired. A recent Cisco and Oxford Economics study, titled “Technology and the Future of ASEAN Jobs,” estimated that 6.6 million workers in ASEAN would be required to adapt their skills and forge new careers in order to remain productively employed over the next decade as a result of increased adoption of AI technology and digital technology. Lower skilled workers, particularly in the services and agricultural sectors, are most at risk of being displaced as their skillsets become obsolete over time.

Beyond technological advancements, governments must also contend with their changing population characteristics in reviewing strategies to address future-of- work challenges and create good job opportunities for their citizens. In ASEAN, demographic transition varies across the 10 Member States, reflecting the different levels of development. Countries such as Singapore and Thailand are already facing the challenge of ensuring sustained economic growth with an ageing workforce. While most in the region are still experiencing a rise in the proportion of youth and working-age population, half of the Member States today have total fertility rates below the replacement levels. In years to come, ASEAN’s workforce will start to shrink.

We have been fortunate that ASEAN has grown at a faster rate compared to many emerging economies. But we cannot take this for granted. If we fail to adequately prepare our people for these inevitable changes, we run the risk of seeing a widening of inequality within, as well as between societies that have concrete strategies in place to address the challenges of the future of work, and those who do not.

We got off to a good start. ASEAN has taken active steps thus far, to prepare our region for these impacts. We had, in response to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) call to prepare countries for the future of work, adopted the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Statement on the Future of Work at the Singapore Conference on the Future of Work last April. The regional statement, the first of its kind, reaffirmed ASEAN governments’ shared commitment to prepare ASEAN workers and businesses for the impact of transformative changes. This commitment is echoed in the landmark ILO declaration—the “Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work”— during the ILO’s centennial last year.

Post-COVID-19 Future of Work: Embracing Technology, Upskilling Workers, and Providing Safe and Decent Work for All

There is much more that we must do. In recent months, our world of work has been experiencing a paradigm shift. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the lives and livelihoods of people all around the world, and ASEAN is no exception. Overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a need to urgently review our employment landscape in the region—from a sudden closure of workplaces, to movement restriction policies, to wage cuts and job losses.

Through this pandemic, we observe, more than ever, the importance of preparing ourselves for the future of work, post-COVID. As the ILO’s Director- General Guy Ryder said:

None of the work that the ILO and ASEAN undertook in planning out the future trajectory of the future of work has been made redundant or out of date by the pandemic. I think that the opposite is the case. This human-centred approach to the future of work that we worked together to construct last year, has to be applied to the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. I think we are well armed with our Centenary Declaration to plot the forward road.

First, we have witnessed first-hand how technology can work for, and not against, us. Technology—digital platforms, adaptive work arrangements—are enabling us to continue with our work, even when our day-to-day lifestyles are disrupted. It is also technology that has facilitated our ASEAN meetings, supporting us in coming together to discuss collective actions to tackle the pandemic, when we are unable to meet physically.

Several ASEAN Member States are in a good position to capitalise on the wave of technological innovation with the abundance of a youthful workforce. But this will require a careful strategy of ensuring adequate job opportunities for their youths amidst the emergence of the “gig economy” in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly given the impact of COVID-19 on labour and employment. In some ASEAN Member States, companies are likely to turn towards freelancers or temporary contract staff for short term assignments, resulting in larger concerns over job security and stability. As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 situation in Singapore, freelancers across different occupations, such as taxi drivers, exercise instructors, and performers in the creative industry, are seeing a reduction in their income. This serves as a timely reminder on the importance of constantly upgrading and diversifying skillsets which freelancers can harness to tide them over difficult periods. ASEAN Member States should therefore strive to regularly review their existing educational curriculums and skills upgrading pathways, to ensure that the youths of the future are adequately prepared and nimble enough to pick up new skillsets quickly to take advantage of new job opportunities.

For ASEAN Member States with ageing workforces, greater emphasis is likely to be placed upon encouraging firms to maximise their human resources by hiring women, older workers, as well as persons with disabilities, while ensuring adequate opportunities for existing workers to upskill or learn new skillsets for the new employment demands of the digital economy. This strategy requires a significant mindset shift from employers, particularly those who still hold preconceived biases over the employability of such workers. Such employers likewise may not feel the urgency of reviewing existing training programmes or job functions to match the profile of the future workforce. In these cases, government and workers’ organisations will have to exert concerted efforts to convince employers to be more open to hiring a wider range of individuals across society.

Bringing New Meaning to Workplace Safety and Health

Second, even without changes to our nature of work, workplace safety and health remain paramount. This is more so now, when COVID-19 is presenting a public health challenge for every government and has brought new meaning to workplace safety and health. We have to move towards “Safe Working and Safe Living” in the post-COVID world of work, to guarantee all workers a safe and healthy work environment, so that they are able to perform their jobs well and return home to their loved ones safe and sound.

The Importance of Greater Social Dialogue in a Tripartite Setting

The founding principle of ASEAN, that being the promotion of peace and security in the region through collaborative efforts in accelerating economic growth and social process, remains relevant in the Age of Disruption. Similarly, the relationship between social partners remains important in the post-COVID world of work. The close partnership has helped various ASEAN Member States introduce quick, decisive measures to cope and fight the pandemic. For example, Singapore worked closely with our tripartite partners to issue advisories on appropriate and practical measures to guide businesses and employees, premised largely on sharing of responsibility across government, employers, and workers. Continued social dialogue and developing synergistic partnership amongst the social partners will hold us in good stead as we adjust to the new post-COVID normal and adapt to new ways of working.

Now as ASEAN Member States and other economies reopen, enable businesses to resume and help workers get back to work, tripartism will play a key role in this recovery. Social dialogue will help chart a reasonable path through employers dealing with business losses and workers suffering income losses by setting guidelines and norms for the industry and unions to follow. Tripartite partnerships will support workers to be retrained to work in new areas where demand is stronger. It will facilitate safe management measures to be implemented at worksites, so that workplaces remain COVID-safe for all workers.

For ASEAN Member States with ageing workforces, greater emphasis is likely to be placed upon encouraging firms to maximise their human resources by hiring women, older workers, as well as persons with disabilities, while ensuring adequate opportunities for existing workers to upskill or learn new skillsets for the new employment demands of the digital economy.

Singapore’s Regional Initiative for the Future of Work 

During the Conference on the Future of Work in April, ASEAN labour ministers welcomed Singapore’s suggestion to create a regional initiative, to sustain continued regional dialogue and capacity building on the topic of the future of work. They recognised that the regional initiative was a tangible and sustained effort to put into action the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Statement on the Future of Work, and heed the call of the ILO and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 8, to “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.”

The Singapore Ministry of Manpower has been working with its tripartite partners (the Singapore National Employers Federation and the National Trades Union Congress) over the past year, in consultation with the ILO and ASEAN Secretariat, to put together our regional initiative. Our intent is to bring together international experts, key ASEAN tripartite stakeholders, and our regional dialogue partners to discuss approaches to preparing workers and employers for the post-COVID new future and new normal world of work. For a start, we will keep this initiative focused on key topics of common interests across ASEAN Member States that are also relevant towards navigating the new COVID-normal, i.e. technology, workplace safety, and health and social dialogue, while factoring in the development levels across ASEAN.

It is important to stress that ASEAN’s governments cannot do it alone. As the ILO centennial report (“Work for a Brighter Future”) pointed out, a three-pronged approach of increasing investments in people’s capabilities, the institutions of work, and decent and sustainable work will be critical in strengthening the social contract between employers, employees, and the state for long term prosperity. This is particularly critical as we tackle these challenging times, where workplaces and jobs change. Without properly addressing the concerns of both workers and employers, ASEAN governments will find it difficult to implement economic policies aimed at addressing the new post-COVID future-of-work challenges. Employers must also accept the importance of human capital development and invest in skills upgrading for their workers. Progressive workplace practices that
will reduce gender inequality in wages and job opportunities are essential in retaining a well-trained, highly motivated, and skilled workforce. Likewise, workers must accept the reality that the best protection for sustained employment would be to adopt a growth mindset and devote time to upgrading their own skillsets.

All these can only be achieved through strong collaborative partnerships across the tripartite entities of state, employers, and employees. As the Oxford/Cisco study pointed out, “the responsibility of mitigating the negative impact of technological change will fall to an ecosystem of government departments, businesses, educational institutions, technology providers and workers’ groups… to work collectively to provide workers with the necessary tools and skills for the transition.” Singapore’s new regional initiative will therefore pay special attention towards forging closer partnerships among ASEAN Member States’ tripartite partners, to promote greater social dialogue to help overcome the challenges presented to us by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the COVID-19 pandemic.