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News Reports

Chatting with Heng Chee How

What’s the difference between a chance and a choice? That’s a phrase Mr Heng Chee How keeps using. A chance: To work beyond age 62 and even up to 67. A choice: To NOT work beyond age 62.

But what if there is no choice? That you have to work beyond a certain age to keep body and soul together, that is, work till you drop? Mr Heng counters that there is at least a chance: some people have to work, or want to work – but can’t because employers can “retire’’ you. In other words, you have BOTH a chance and a choice.

Methinks many people have mixed feelings about the retirement age. To think that it was only two years ago that we were told that we can work till 65 and now, we’re talking about labouring till 67!

Much of the misperception about the retirement age is this idea that we HAVE to work till we drop, or at least to whatever retirement age we’ve settled on. Some of us probably have to; some of us can afford to smell the roses earlier.

The confusion – or resentment – is compounded by the CPF withdrawal age of 55. That number is ingrained in everyone’s mind as the time you can start relaxing because there’s money a-coming. It’s a deadline. Then we get a jolt when we realise that the sums will be disbursed in small amounts over time, although with CPF Life, they will be given out until the day we die. (In fact, if you look at the CPF website, its home page has Turning 55 as Retirement. So much for G messaging…!)

Anyway, we’re told/asked to work for longer because we happen to also live longer and CPF savings may not be enough. And we are put on some kind of guilt-trip about burdening our children and the next generation.

Actually, the phrase “retirement age’’ is quite redundant to the worker. It’s not as though you get a gratuity or pension of some sort, at least for most of us. It’s actually something that works to the advantage of employers who want to see the back of some seniors who get too comfortable and fat on the job. Yay! We can retire the fella! He’s always falling sick and we’re paying his medical fees! Time to get fresh blood! Cheaper!

Methinks we shouldn’t be talking about retirement, we should be talking about re-employment. You can retire anytime you want, but if you want to still continue working, you can. Isn’t that a better way to pitch the message?

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The question that people, at least employees, should be raising is not whether the retirement age should go up, but what sort of re-employment is being offered, if it is being offered at all.

So what’s the status report? I got to talking to Mr Heng, the deputy secretary in the NTUC, for some background.

From 2012, employers have to offer re-employment to those who hit 62. It’s the law – unless the person is unfit or the employer can argue that there is no suitable job for the person. Yup, it does seem weighted in favour of employers. (Imagine: Yes, you have been doing the same job for years but we’ve decided to do away with the job and we can’t find anything else for you…And then open the job up later for a new worker???)

In any case, the Manpower ministry has a survey of what happened in 2012. From what I can gather, 79 per cent of private establishments had measures to allow their local employees to work beyond 62 in 2011, up from 77 per cent in 2010. As for the rest which didn’t, or 21 per cent of employers, they gave reasons such as lack of suitable job and leadership renewal.

That’s the employer front. Seems 400 people didn’t get offered a job. MOM didn’t say if it did anything about employers who couldn’t give a good reason.

But just because a person is offered a job, doesn’t mean he has to accept it. It seems that 92 per cent or 10,600 of the older workers accepted re-employment.

So people want to work.

Sounds good, but what sort of terms were they offered?

Said MOM: “Of the local employees who accepted re-employment in the same job, only 17 per cent of the employees were paid lower, with a median wage cut of 12 per cent A small minority or 3.6 per cent were paid more, with a median wage gain of 12 per cent.’’

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I don’t know why MOM chose to use the word “only’’.

Too often, we hear of older workers accepting terms below what they should be paid for, such as same workload for less pay or no medical benefits. It is as though their worth goes down at age 62, even though they do the same amount of work. They have recourse: to the unions, to the Commissioner of Labour. If they are unionised, or know their rights. ( I wonder what sort of workers accept lower pay for the same work? Probably those who HAVE to work, that is, the low wage worker. So you have a 62 year old trying to keep body and soul together on even lower pay… )

There is one aspect of the Retirement and Reemployment Act that is seldom mentioned:  That an employer who is unable to find a suitable place for an eligible employee

(a) must let them retire (so odd isn’t it? It’s as though the employer can handcuff you to your desk) OR

(b) “offer an employment assistance payment to the eligible employee’’. Tripartite guidelines say that this should be between $4,500 and $10,000.

Didn’t know that did you? I guess it’s because the whole idea of raising the retirement age is to get people to continue working and not view the sum as a sort of retirement benefit.

For those interested in what happens when you are getting close to 62, here’s a dumbed down scenario.

  1. You get a call from your boss/HR manager, like three months before your birthday, to ask if you want to carry on working. That’s assuming you’re medically fit.
  2. If you say no, then its “sayonara’’ and all the best to you.
  3. If you say yes, then the employer will have to try to find you something to do. It could be your old job or a new role and then you start discussing terms. One-year contract, for example, that can be renewed till you hit 65. If you are not happy with the terms and you’re convinced that the employer is making it too tough for you to stay, you can go to the union or the ministry. (Problem then is what is considered “reasonable’’ terms)
  4. If the employer doesn’t want you in your old job (maybe he has someone younger in mind) and can’t find a place for you anywhere, he’s supposed to help you find another job. That’s why he has to give you an Employment Assistance Payment, to help tide you over the job-seeking period.

I asked Mr Heng why this hurry to get the age raised to 67 when people might not be too clear about how re-employment works. Also, shouldn’t we wait till Medishield Life gets underway so that companies can move to a portable medical benefits system and workers can be assured of proper medical care regardless of age?

He cites the current labour market as a reason. Best to do it when employers feel the need for workers – and can’t get more bodies. The flip side, however, is that young workers will start wondering how to get to the top if the higher ranks are filled with “senior’’ people who seem to be staying on “forever’’. He says it boils down to re-designing jobs for older workers so that they still have a role to play, but make way for the younger lot. Like doing part-time work, or becoming mentors or consultants.

He says, very frankly too, that employers always have ways to get rid of older people, with or without legislation. They can, for example, find a reason to let go someone before the person hits re-employment age. The current set of statistics which lump workers within a 55 to 64 year old band isn’t enough, he reckons. Better to have a yearly breakdown to see if employers are playing punk (my phrase).

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He asked me for my definition of retirement. I told him it’s about not having to work or working at a slower pace than before. And that, of course, depends on whether you have enough money stashed away to be able to do so. (Which makes me glad that the CPF contribution rate was raised for older workers two years ago, in line with the raised retirement age. Hmmm…Shouldn’t that go up too if we raise the age further?)

The question though is what is what is “enough money’’ to retire on – something which will differ from person to person.

Maybe we should retire the term retirement. And just keep calm and carry on working.

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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