Stepping out of the two-storey air-conditioned shophouse office of a vendor, I was rudely greeted by the scorching heat of Pahang Street.
I found relief in my Grab ride which arrived just two minutes later.
“Good afternoon, Miss! Thank you for taking my ride today,” came the greeting from the driver from behind his blue mask.
“Thank me? I should be the one thanking you for getting me out of this unbearable heat,” I thought to myself.
As the car started to move off, the driver, David, shared with me that he was to pick his wife up from work at Changi and that I was his last passenger for the day.
“It must be your lucky day then, Punggol is on the way to Changi,” I exclaimed.
Little did I know that there was more conversation on “luck” in our journey ahead.
Retrenched due to Covid
As we continued on our journey, David told me his story.
He is one of the many from the aviation industry who had recently been retrenched due to the current Covid-19 pandemic. His company will continue paying his salary until October, after which David will receive a severance package of one month’s pay for every year of service, capped at 25 months.
At 22, David started as a technician in one of Singapore’s leading airline companies. Today, 26 years later, he has to deal with a huge and unexpected career change. Although he tries to be positive about it – he recently created a JobStreet account – his biggest concern at the moment is not to cause distress to his younger child, a daughter who will be sitting her O levels this year. Only his wife and 25-year-old son know about him losing his job.
At this point, David wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye and said, “Sorry to tell you my story.”
He told me that he was under immense stress to get a job within a few months. Aside from the normal household expenses, he has a home loan to refinance. The severance package helps but not having a job is a source of great worry for him.
All these led him to be a Grab driver. He now splits a rental car with a friend, taking the day shift while his friend drives at night. He also delivers parcels and food on weekends to earn a few extra dollars.
Private-hire and food delivery jobs are just some of the ways the gig economy is helping Singaporeans – who may be laid off due to Covid-19 – survive day to day. Some of these jobs are those we may not think highly of when times are good, but are essential to many in hard times.
Remaining positive in a difficult situation
There are others who have lost their jobs who may not have a gungho mentality like David, though. David shares that a colleague took the news quite badly.
“My friend fainted, so I went to visit him at the hospital. I told him, ‘Why you fainted, abang?’ He said, ‘You know people say I suay, kena retrenched. I’m so embarrassed.’
“I said, ‘What do you need to be embarrassed of? It’s not your fault.’ So I told him, ‘You still have your security officer licence, go home and put up your resume.’”
As for David, he shared that he has applied for more than twenty positions, including in logistics and recently got a callback for interviews from a couple of companies.
“$2,200 pay, with CPF and bonus, ok lah, not too bad,” he says.
How to talk to someone in tough situations
Most of us may have heard of someone we know being laid off, but have we ever listened, truly listened to their story? Showing empathy in these situations may be tough. It’s tempting to offer words of optimism as an immediate reaction to the news. It’s only human to want to quickly reassure someone who is hurting and find a solution for their troubles.
However, the first step in any conversation with a distraught and newly unemployed friend or loved one, is to slow down, and listen.
For those who had served their organisation for a long time, being laid off may come across as a betrayal. It is an emotional reaction to an economic decision. So deal with the emotions before swooping in with a solution.
Instead of brushing off their hurt, the more empathetic thing to do is to validate the feelings of worry and disappointment that they may have. If they want to reminisce about their time in the job, be patient and let them.
And be careful of spouting platitudes that can come across as being glib. In a Covid world, where the job market is bad, saying “Hope you can get a job soon” can feel like you’re rubbing salt into a wound, because it reminds them of the uncertainty ahead.
After listening, you can then steer the conversation towards more practical grounds by asking about their plans and what type of jobs they are looking for.
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In the 21 minutes it took to reach Punggol from Pahang Street, I let David recount his memories from his first day at work up till when he received the retrenchment news. It was not unwelcome, but it was certainly not what I expected when I booked a car on the ride-sharing app!
I consider myself an introvert, so striking up a conversation with a stranger is not my biggest strength, but I have learnt that meeting someone new allows us a certain freedom that we do not often stop to appreciate. Here is a stranger who has no expectations of you, and you of them. In that brief moment, we are not judged by our previous mistakes or experiences because we don’t know each other at all. And there is a strange sense of safety in that, and an opportunity to be kind.
This encounter also taught me about myself – to count my blessings, to work on my shortcomings, and also to choose the kind of energy that I want in my life. Hearing David’s story reminded me to look at life positively and to be grateful for any situation I am in – good and bad – because every cloud has a silver lining.
“Covid affected us badly this year. I cried not because I lost my image, but because God is great,” David said as we approached my destination.
With a sense of gratitude for this chance encounter, I wished David good luck on the next stage of his life and exited the vehicle with some life lessons. Suddenly, the sweltering heat didn’t bother me so much any more.