Are We Outsourcing Our Social Responsibility?

A couple of weeks back I was invited to speak on a panel discussing a Clean & Green Singapore. I said agreed because I had always wanted to meet Sivasothi, one of Singapore’s leading environmentalists. We’ve known of each other since the term “blog” was invented, but for reasons uninvestigated, we had never actually met.

The discussion panel took its predicted path down governmental measures lane and civic mindedness alley and it was only when Siva spoke about what he did to the students he taught at NUS that I really began listening (sorry NEA, rest of panel – it was one of those days I was triple-booked).

Siva, who later shared my regret that we weren’t as entertaining and fiery as we should have been, has this fabulous requirement of his students. They are required to put their chairs back in place after a lecture has concluded. And – this will blow your socks off if you weren’t wearing slippers like the sloppy Singaporean you are – he makes his students find out the name of the cleaner who cleans the areas in and around the lecture theatres!

Then I started thinking about what had been spoken earlier in the discussion: that Singapore is not a clean city – it is a cleaned city. We don’t see, and neglect to care about the dusk to dawn army of cleaning workers who pick up our garbage in the streets and parks at night.

I’ve mentioned how we delegate our personal responsibilities to so many people that we’ve forgotten we have these responsibilities. Not only do we not know who takes away our trash, we don’t even take out our own trash.

Earlier in the week, I left for work at the same time the guy from the cleaning company was mopping the floor at our lift lobby. I said good morning and he jumped out of his skin. I decided not to startle him further, and will ask for his name next time we meet.

At a meeting a fortnight ago, a bunch of young entrepreneurs was telling us about the disparity between the cleaning company’s contract fee and the actual salary of the person actually doing the job. Yes, there are cleaners who are getting paid $800 a month or less.

It’s a lot more complicated than just saying ‘yes, we need to pay the cleaners more’,  and the tyranny of modern economic conveniences will mean that business owners will still want to engage a cleaning company than to employ a cleaner directly.

It follows that something needs to be done about the people who are directly employing the cleaners. And apparently, something that will pay them more than a mandatory minimum wage, like the progressive wage model I wrote about earlier will come into being next year. Here’s hoping it works out well.

But as I was saying on that panel that evening, if you want a more caring, compassionate society, you have to start thinking of the consequences of every action. There are things within your means you can do to help low wage workers like cleaners.

You want to care about the cleaners who are paid little? Make their job easier. Pick up after yourselves, return your tray, push your chair back after you get up.

I sit on the management council of the condo we live in, and I went on a little power trip at a meeting last week. The security guard company we hire had requested for a fee increase. I voted ok as long as we know that the two guards, who look after our premises and make sure no idiots anyhowly park in our car park, have a commensurate pay increase as well. We even voted on a little thing – making sure there’s enough mosquito repellent in the guard house so they don’t kenah dengue.

I’ve just found out that what we were doing was this thing called “best-sourcing”, which is gahmen-speak for outsourcing in a conscious, conscientious and socially responsible way. And like many things about this fine country, there’s even a monetary incentive to do so.

But as we become increasingly out-sourcery, we must not let ourselves or our corporations outsource our social responsibilities.

I think it’s time I called another council meeting.