Being A Good Boss Man

I’ve been an employer for several years now, and when I first started, it was easy to look for advice from other “bosses”. Whether that advice was good or not is another matter.

What’s been evident is the difference in attitudes between the younger generation of employers and the older. Last year when one of my current employees reached his first anniversary of working at my company (and survived), I thanked him and apologized that things weren’t quite as rosy as I would have liked them to be, and that I read the National Wages Council’s recommendation for that year, but I could only afford to pay him an increment slightly higher than what the annual rate of inflation was.

Expecting him to be disappointed, I was a little shocked that he said I was the first employer he’d worked for to even consider things such as inflation, or even to have spoken about the National Wages Council.

Who are the shadowy people of the NWC, you may well ask? They’re from the trade unions, the Ministry of Manpower, and employers. And every year since 1972, they’ve been giving guidelines to whether and how to implement wage increases.

And there’s the rub – they’re just guidelines. And whether or not the workers of the nation get a pay increase or not is dependent on the paymaster – and a lot has also to do with whether the company’s employers are unionized, because just looking at last year’s NWC recommendations – 80% of of unionized companies followed the recommended increase, and only 30% of non-unionized companies did. What’s more, only 25% of Singapore workers are in the union.

Yet for some reason, people complain about how the NTUC isn’t doing anything to help increase the wages of workers. Hallo? How to help if you’re not in a union?

In any case, employers were surveyed last year, and some of those that didn’t implement the wage increases obviously had issues with company growth, cash flow or a giam ganna boss.

My fellow employers, there are ways to help your situation. Out of the minimum $60 wage increase recommendation for workers earning up to $1,000, the gahmen’s Wage Credit Scheme can subsidize $24. That’s 40% leh! 

I remember speaking with a man in his 60s a few years ago, who was doing ok with his business (not making a loss), and he was complaining about the NWC and how they keep recommending increases. I was struck by his summary: “Every year ask us to increase pay, where to find the money? My backside ah?” 

With a few years’ employer’s experience in my pocket, if I had spoken to him today, I’d have said, “Abu den? You have a responsibility to your staff as well as your profit margin, and the money would indeed have to come from your backside, not your staff’s”.

The way things stand at the moment, the challenge is in getting employers to shift their attitudes a little and come on board to actively promote their workers’ welfare. The Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF) is a union of bosses that I think I might also sign up for – there are quite a few things they offer that I and my staff could use.

My current staff would be happy to know I’m joining a union to get help to improve their welfare (which they say is currently pretty darn good – cos we have this thing called “boss buy lunch day” once a month where we pick an expensive restaurant for a two hour lunch and eat and discuss work – I get the best insights into how my clients are handled, and my staff get a great lunch).

Want Your Union To Have A Greater Say? Join Them

When news broke of the SMRT bus drivers’ strike last year, the first thought that came to mind was, “Oh no, when are they going to be arrested”?

Even before the MOM made a statement about the strike (which traditional media called “bus drivers did not turn up for work”) being illegal, I knew the authorities had to detain them under the Trade Unions Act and Trade Disputes Act.

The strike is still a political hot potato as many questions regarding the welfare of the drivers and the responsibilities of the employer (SMRT) are yet to be answered.

Then there was the role of the trade unions. It seems the drivers were not unionized, and were poorly educated and informed about their rights and obligations.

Even if they were, the unions would only have been able to negotiate on two things – living conditions and eligibility of pay adjustments. The third issue in the dispute – that of the wage difference between drivers of other nationalities, would have been out of the union’s scope as it was a contractual issue between the drivers (or the drivers’ agents) and the SMRT.

Of course, this feeds into the popular rumbling that industrial unions and the NTUC are toothless organizations, endemically incapable of fighting for workers’ rights.

Somewhere in there lies the truth that our labour laws have been developed over the last 40 years to offer so much statutory protection of employees that many of what people perceive to be the unions’ roles have been usurped.

Try not paying your workers’ CPF and salary for a bit and see how quickly the MOM comes down on you. OK, actually, don’t try this at all. It’s all hypothetical and I am not instigating anything, but lemme tell you, they are swifter than Taylor Swift.

It is an ongoing thing, and I think there are further changes afoot come tomorrow and July, when changes to the Employment Act will be made to benefit a greater spectrum of workers.

So where does this leave the workers’ unions and the NTUC? They are still there to facilitate good work practices, good work conditions, and continual improvement in skills of workers.

Say if you had a dispute with your employer regarding overtime pay conditions (like *ahem* when your boss said you were getting a pay hike but actually took away overtime and added Saturday to your work week… just sayin’…). If you had a union, you’d complain to your union representative, who’d then bring this up with the NTUC if your union was affiliated with the NTUC.

Strength in numbers comes into play in this instance, and the NTUC will take on your case with all its resources. While there’s a lot of focus on “tripartism” and “collective bargaining”, it has to be noted that there is still room for legal redress – the courts or the MOM can overturn a collective bargaining agreement if it deems it to be unfair to the worker under the law.

Tripartism’s objective in Singapore is for a stable labour market. Stringent labour laws and happy workers leads to a conducive environment for business, which leads to more jobs. And this is where the interesting thing I learned happens – a bottleneck occurs when jobs are many and labour is not enough.

When there are not enough workers, the MOM has to import (please, those in the F&B business can chime in here about how hard it is to get local labour), and when the MOM imports too many, wages are suppressed and businesses become dependent on cheap foreign labour.

The NTUC then pressures the MOM to reduce the imports so workers pay can be protected, but has to be mindful that the MOM has to placate businesses who are now looking at Iskandar because it’s nearby, labour and every frikkin’ thing is cheaper and the Malaysian government is offering tax perks.

OK, I don’t think I have done a good job at describing the not-so-merry-go-round, and I really need Mr Lim Swee Say’s marker pen and paper scribblings that describes the delicate balance all parties have to strike. But I think at least some of you get the picture.

If you think you can improve your own lot, or your colleagues’, or the welfare of low wage earners, the last things you should do is to kowpeh about how the Government doesn’t care, rail against the perceived foreigner-first outlook, then at the same time complain about how there are not enough locals who want to work in your cafe.

I urge all of you, if you are a salaried employee, to empower yourself by checking if you have a union for your trade. Even if there isn’t, become a member of the NTUC. There is a benefit far greater than any of the special offers, supermarket vouchers and discounts we have come to associate NTUC with.

You’ll give yourself a stronger voice in this tripartite triangle, and have a say in how things are supposed to work.

Cheaper Better Faster

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The Labour Movement should not let Lim Swee Say it himself. Not since the 1990s, when Goh Chok Tong spouted all manner of football analogies, has anyone generated so much interest over his own slogans and turns of phrases.

It’s been three and a half years since the NTUC’s Secretary-General first exhorted the country’s workers to be part of a Cheaper, Better, Faster (CBF*) economy, and I haven’t stopped hearing people talking about how the blardy gahmen wants to make them cheaper better and faster. It’s been detracting people from the real issues the NTUC and the MOM have been trying to tackle, and quite unfortunately a lot of people think this is how the NTUC has made its mark this last decade.

Actually, any slogan that starts with or has the word “cheap” or “cheaper” in it is asking for trouble: Courtesy is for Cheap. Cheap Better Best. Cheaper is Enough. You get the picture. It makes you want to go to Sim Lim Square and haggle with a salesman over an iPhone 5 knock-off.

Then a fortnight ago Mr Lim was quoted in the papers as saying that the country needed not only to “bite the bullet, not one, but three bullets”. I took it to mean the Cheaper Bullet, Better Bullet and Faster Bullet because I couldn’t find anything else in the article that explained what those bullets were and why they needed biting.

I was invited last month to a social media/bloggers’ dinner (catered by Smiling Orchid, no less) and briefing at NTUC Centre on One Marina Boulevard and learned about the (silver, supposedly) bullet that the NTUC didn’t want anyone to bite – A National Minimum Wage.

As we all know now, the purported rejection of Minimum Wage by the NTUC – announced by, of all people to announce it, the Sec-Gen himself, instigated a tirade against The NTUC,  Dis Gahmen and That Minister, which hasn’t shown signs of abating. The tirade generally goes along the lines of:

“WTF is this Progressive Wage Model? Dowan to pay people more just say so lah!”

I don’t know whether it’s because you can’t get the full picture on ST or if the glossy infographics on NTUC’s own online media just makes your eyes glaze over, but if you had looked hard at what Mr Lim Swee Say was saying, you’d realise that nobody is rejecting the Minimum Wage.

I support the view that if you were to introduce a mandatory minimum wage in any industry, at a level high enough to make any meaningful difference to real wages, you WILL see unemployment, and the lower income group will be the first to suffer as unemployment becomes institutionalized, as has been the case in every country with a national minimum wage.

The good thing for us is that NTUC has been working on a solution to what they see as a great social cost of economic growth. It’s a calibrated and adjustable solution, where wage increases are pegged to “job/skill productivity enhancements” which have been made easier through funding from other labour institutions.

If I could tell Lim Swee Say what to say to the public so that the NTUC gets a better rap, I’d tell him to call what he’s scribbled on the paper sheets the Minimum Wage Plus instead of Progressive Wage Model because it’d have sounded less like the PWM was a substitute for Minimum Wage.

I’d also ask him to tell the public that he really goes to the MOM to Kow Peh Kow Bu about protecting workers, and that under his watch, the NTUC has actually forced the MOM to make changes to the Employment Act.

I’d ask him to tell the press what he said to EDB when they asked him, “where am I going to get the money to fund your workers’ upgrading courses”?

I would ask him to go on record as having said, “Not my problem. You go and find the money or else you won’t have an economy to develop”. (ok I paraphrase a little but I think he said something to that effect).

I’d tell him to summon the blardy SPH’s and Mediacorp’s news outlets and tell them to print a statement that he wanted the economy that was CHEAPER THAN SILICON VALLEY, BETTER THAN CHINA and FASTER THAN KOREA BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A COMPETITIVE, HIGHLY SKILLED, ADAPTABLE AND INTELLIGENT WORK FORCE.

But what to do? People like to shoot them (with the bullets they’ve been asked to bite) whatever they do.

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*It is very unfortunate that the nation’s labour movement has kept an unintentional tradition of using dubious acronyms: CBF is what the NTUC which was formerly known as SFTU coined. (And they banned FCUK because it was suggestive, wah lao eh).