The year 2020 saw Singapore’s total employment excluding foreign domestic workers (FDWs) logging its sharpest plunge in over two decades, no thanks to the pandemic.

Total employment for the year was down by 166,600, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) revealed in its Labour Market report released on Mar 16.

This follows a decline in non-resident employment by 181,500, with the bulk of this coming from the construction and manufacturing sectors.

Cutbacks in the employment of foreigners were widespread, with a significant number among holders of Work Permits (-138,800), S Passes (-26,000) and Employment Passes (-16,700).

Resident employment had conversely risen by 14,900 in 2020 – slightly higher than it was prior to the pandemic.

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This follows improvements in hiring in 2H2020, namely in sectors such as public administration & education, health & social services, information & communications, financial & insurance services and professional services.

However, the hiring sentiment was bleak in sectors such as aviation, accommodation and arts, entertainment & recreation as their activity was restricted throughout the year.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s unemployment rate edged up by 0.7 percentage points to 3.0% in 2020, from the 2.3% registered in the year before.

Unemployment among both residents and citizens rose, with resident joblessness hitting 4.1% in 2020, compared to 3.1% in 2019.

Citizen joblessness meanwhile, inched up to 4.2% in 2020, from 3.3% in 2019.

Drawing reference to the unemployment levels in past recessionary periods such as SARS in 2003 and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2009, MOM notes that the latest levels are lower.

The overall jobless rate had hit 4.0% during the SARS pandemic in 2003, with the resident unemployment rate being 5.2% and that for citizens being 5.4%.

The unemployment rate was 3.0% during the GFC, with the resident unemployment rate being 4.3% and that for citizens being 4.5%.

Aside from this, retrenchments in 2020 came in at 26,110 – more than double the 10,690 layoffs in 2019.


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However, MOM notes that the incidence of retrenchment in 2020 – which was 12.8 retrenched persons per 1,000 employees – was lower than that during the past recessionary years.

For comparison, the incidence of retrenchment averaged at 22.5 per 1,000 employees in prior downturns.

With an incidence level of 15.7 retrenched per 1,000 non-resident employees, non-residents were more likely to be laid off. The incidence level for residents was meanwhile 11.1 retrenched per 1,000 resident employees.

Interestingly, retrenchments had declined for the first time in 4Q2020 ended December, after five consecutive quarters of increases. 

Total layoffs in 4Q2020 was 5,640, compared to 9,120 in 3Q2020 ended September and 8,130 in 2Q2020 ended June.

This follows fewer layoffs in most industries save air transport and supporting services which have taken a hit from the global travel restrictions, MOM notes.

In terms of the incidence of resident retrenchment by occupational group, PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) had the highest at 2.6 layoffs per 1,000 resident employees in 4Q2020.

By comparison, this number was 3.7 retrenchments per 1,000 resident employees, in 3Q2020.

The incidence or retrenchment was 2.1 for clerical, sales and service workers, and 1.0 for production and transport operators, cleaners and labourers, in 4Q2020.

A cause for concern comes from the seasonally-adjusted ratio of job vacancies to unemployed persons. The metric came in at 0.77 in December, improving from 0.63 in September.

However, this remains below the 0.82 ratio before the pandemic as unemployment “remained elevated,” MOM notes.

A number less than 1, implies that the number of available jobs is insufficient to serve all the unemployed, even if they undergo retraining. 

In this instance, it means there are 77 job vacancies for every 100 persons unemployed in Singapore.

There were 56,500 job vacancies in December, compared to 50,100 in September.

Looking ahead, MOM expects the recovery in the labour market to be gradual and uneven across the sectors.

To secure a rebound the government has put in place several initiates such as extending and enhancing the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package. It has also set aside an additional $5.2 billion to expand local hiring under the Jobs Growth Initiative.

“We will continue to support jobseekers’ reskilling and upskilling efforts, to help them prepare for jobs of the future and emerge stronger from the crisis,” MOM says.