Singapore's total employment in Q1 sees largest quarterly contraction on record: MOM

SINGAPORE'S employment landscape in the first quarter of 2020 performed worse than expected, with total employment declining by 25,600, the largest quarterly contraction on record, according to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Monday.

This is higher than the 19,000 cited in the ministry's preliminary data released on April 29. It also exceeds the 24,000 contraction seen in Q2 2003 during the peak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

However, given that Singapore's employment pool has grown over the years, the decline in Q1 2020 represents a 0.7 per cent decrease, while the drop in Q2 2003 was a 1.2 per cent fall, MOM noted.

MOM attributed the decline in Q1 to "significant cutbacks in foreign employment" but added that local employment also fell slightly due to sharper-than-expected declines in trade and tourism-related industries.

Explaining the discrepancy between the preliminary data and final data to reporters in a virtual briefing, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said: "When we produce preliminary findings, they usually come out less than a month after the quarter has ended.

"All of the data points we have come from an earlier part of the quarter. So in this instance, more of the data would have come from the January and February timeframe, whereas the impact was more deeply felt in March but probably did not get reflected as much in the preliminary findings."

It was in March that Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, and travel restrictions subsequently became more widespread.

The sharpest decline in employment was seen in the food and beverage services sector, which shed 8,300 jobs. This is followed by the construction sector at 5,800 jobs, and retail trade at 5,400 jobs.

In contrast, the public administration and education sector and the professional services sector saw the biggest expansion, with total employment growing by 2,500 each. This is followed by the financial services sector, which grew by 2,300.

Retrenchments reached 3,220 in Q1, higher than the 3,000 cited in the ministry's preliminary data. In comparison, Q4 2019 saw 2,670 retrenchments. Even so, this is lower than the quarterly peak of 12,760 seen in Q1 2009 at the height of the Global Financial Crisis.

More local employees were affected by business cessations - there were 1,537 in Q1 2020, up from 628 in the previous quarter.

MOM also noted that a significantly higher number of employees were placed on a short work week or temporary layoff - at 4,190 in Q1 2020, compared with 840 in the previous quarter.

As a result, the average weekly paid hours worked per employee fell slightly to 44.4 hours in Q1 2020, down from 44.7 hours in Q4 2019.

Unemployment rates in the ministry's final report remain unchanged from its preliminary report. Total unemployment is at 2.4 per cent, up from 2.3 per cent in the previous quarter. Resident unemployment is at 3.3 per cent, up from 3.2 per cent, while citizen unemployment is at 3.5 per cent, up from 3.3 per cent.