Fri. Dec 8th, 2023

TL;DR – There is money on the table. NTUC wants to help put this help directly into the pockets of ordinary Singaporeans, ordinary workers.

Working from home is tiring. More tiring than going to office. It’s true. You see, my home is small. So we don’t have proper work tables and chairs. My wife and I are cramped in our bedroom, sitting on the floor, using small Ikea tables (which we bought long before COVID-19 hit ok…). I think the human body isn’t built for us to sit cross-legged for too long. It’s ache-inducing.

But no matter how bad my back aches from working from home, I am grateful. At least my wife and I still have jobs. We still have regular incomes.

Which is not the case for a lot of people.

Since the whole COVID-19 thing escalated in Singapore, many businesses have been affected. F&B businesses were amongst those badly hit. Many will go in the red. And as the revenues drop, businesses may have to consider laying off their staff. That’s a decision that one particular owner of a ramen business knows he might have to make.

If the name Yang Kaiheng sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the guy who was responsible for The Real Singapore. It was a toxic rubbish site that fed Singaporeans with lies that sowed discord. All that for ad money. And Yang (and his wife) rightfully got punished for the xenophobic articles that the site published. But it looks like he certainly has matured a lot.

He made this great point:

“Behind the staff cost numbers on your P&L are invaluable team members with their own families that depend on them. They worked with us when times were good and even if they weren’t all top performers, they are all eager and willing to work with us now to get through this difficult time together. If you were to get rid of them, how will they be able to find a job this year?”

And Yang urged all struggling SME business owners to keep their staff. He pointed out that there are other solutions to help with cashflow issues. These includes the “government’s Job Support Scheme, as well as other support packages already help us a lot”.

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Coming from someone who used to bash the government, I suppose the government’s schemes and packages are indeed of great help. And indeed, the government is helping businesses is precisely so that business can continue to keep their staff.

But what about those who are self-employed? People like taxi-drivers, private hire vehicle drivers, freelancers in media, events management, or any other sectors? What about them? Mind you, it’s not a small number of these self-employed persons (SEPs) and freelancers around. MOM estimates that there are around 200,000 of them. My guess is there’re more.

Some of these have seen their incomes plummet, or even completely dry up, especially because of the circuit breaker measures.

To help this group, the government, after input and feedback from NTUC, came up with the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) for SEPs who started work as SEPs on or before 25 March 2020, and earn a Net Trade Income (NTI) of not more than $100,000.

Sure. When the scheme was first announced, there were some inadequacies. There were some SEPs who do have a “day job” where they have a monthly salary. And if the annual value (AV) of your property is above $13,000, then you also don’t get anything from the original version of SIRS first announced at the supplementary budget, the Resilience Budget. Which means that most SEPs who live in condos and private properties won’t benefit from SIRS.

But the government heard the feedback, again, from the people at NTUC who have been talking a lot to the ground during this challenging time. After the announcement of the first two budgets, NTUC spoke to workers from different industries and fields of work. Though the support is generous, some freelancers and self-employed have expressed their worry that they did not meet the criteria for SIRS.

After gathering all the feedback, the SIRS  scheme has since been enhanced and the updates were delivered by DPM Heng during the third stimulus package, the Solidarity Budget, announced on Monday (6 April).

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Now, if you are an SEP who also earn an income of no more than $2,300 per month from employment work, and the annual value of your property is less than $21,000, you will still be eligible for SIRS. That means that even if you live in a condo, you might still be able to get some income from the enhanced SIRS to help you tide through this difficult period.

SEPs who are above 37 years old as at (31 Dec 2020) and declared positive SEP income to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) / CPF Board (CPFB) for Work Year 2018 do not need to apply. They will be automatically notified of their eligibility via letter and SMS, and will receive the first SIRS payout automatically in end-May 2020.

For the other SEPs who are eligible but not automatically included may also apply for SIRS once application opens. SEPs who narrowly miss the eligibility criteria may submit appeals.

One of the frequently raised feedback from the workers to NTUC is that they would like to see an increase in the speed of Government assistance. As Minister Ng Chee Meng, who is Secretary-General of NTUC, said,

“The Government has pushed out a lot of budgetary help over the past weeks. Money is on the table. The key now is to put this help directly into the pockets of ordinary Singaporeans, ordinary workers.”

To speed up the processing of the applications and appeals, NTUC will be helping the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) administer the SIRS. Minister Ng Chee Meng has also said that NTUC will try its best to push for inclusion and make the SIRS process as straightforward as possible.

As part of the process to provide more help to SEPs, NTUC is also developing plans to extend the pop-up care centres for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to cater to other SEPs. The first pop-up care centre just opened at Downtown East last week and is dedicated to support taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. The care centre aims to help drivers apply for NTUC’s assistance funds, learn more about other forms of immediate assistance and it has a job fair backed by NTUC’s e2i to help drivers  explore other job options.

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An example of an alternative job option for taxi drivers has been a food delivery trial between SMRT and food and beverage firm Fei Siong. Under the arrangement, drivers from SMRT Taxis will ferry delivery assistants from Fei Siong around, which, until this point, did not offer food delivery services. SMRT drivers will be block-booked for three hours either from 11am to 2pm or 5pm to 8pm, during which they will be paid a fixed rate of $20 an hour that is co-paid by Fei Siong and SMRT Taxis.

By setting up more of such care centres to also cater to other SEPs, NTUC aims to reach out to more of the 200,000 SEPs in  Singapore. As Minister Ng said:

“We have close to 40,000 freelancers that are already with NTUC. But as you know, we have close to about 200,000 SEPs (self-employed persons) and freelancers in Singapore. So there is still a wide space for us in these very unusual times to extend assistance and care to these workers, and importantly, provide a dignified way for them to continue to earn a wage.”

I have a number of friends who are SEPs and have no income now because of the circuit breaker measures. They are in the age group that needs to apply for SIRS. One narrowly misses the eligibility criteria. I hope that NTUC gets more of these pop-up care centres going soon so that my friends can get the help they need soon.

Unexpected Jobs That COVID-19 Created

By Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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