Robo-cutter To Change Landscaping Landscape

All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter
All your grass are belong to Robo-cutter

I was invited to check out a demonstration of this machine called the “Robo-Cutter” and I got really excited because, WTF, it’s a robot that cuts grass, right?

No it wasn’t what I expected – there wasn’t any artificial intelligence about it, and it couldn’t deploy itself automatically where it sensed the grass was tall. It was really just a remote controlled grass-cutting tractor.

I put my disappointment aside, and spoke to the person who was heading the demonstration, Mr Neo Say Hwee of Ho Eng Huat Construction Pte Ltd.

He had purchased the Robo-Cutter for something close to $100,000. Close to half of it was subsidised by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which has a grant called the Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP).

In one fell swoop, Mr Neo cut down on his reliance for cheap foreign labour, which was utilised in landscape maintenance tasks for the old grass cutters. The Robo-Cutter can now do the equivalent job of half a dozen masked men (grass-cutting ninjas), while using only one trained operator.

While I don’t have the exact numbers to crunch, I think that while the government continues to tighten the supply of cheap foreign labour, companies like Mr Neo’s will still stride forward when grants like IGP are applied judiciously to help innovative additions, like the Robo-Cutter.

More importantly, the employees trained to operate these smart machineries will be able to be paid more. The job is also made easier and safer as they are able to operate the machine from a distance under the shade, lowering the possibilities of heat and other injuries.

This, I think is the best way to go about the increasing required wage. A mandatory minimum wage level with nothing else is just going to see companies like Mr Neo’s being forced to pay more for grass-cutting ninjas, and the costs inevitably will be passed on to their clients.

Unfortunately, many maintenance contracts in this particular sector are still mired in old terms and requirements. They restrict companies’ ability to take the leap and innovate, like how Mr Neo has done with his company.

Contracts still stipulate how many persons are required to do the job, and buyers tend to want a discount when you tell them you are going to use fewer men. Worse, some may be shocked and not want to award you the contract when you tell them you are going to use a robot and one man.

Terms need to be changed. Buyers need to know that the essence of the contract is in whether a job can be done well and quickly, regardless of how many people are used. With the labour supply crunch several industries are facing, it will make the most sense to do this, and make the best use of every worker by giving them the best work opportunities and do the best to reward them once the job is done in a safer and more efficient way.

As you can see, it takes an effort in concert – the buyer, the contractor and the worker have to change the way things are done in order to move this along, in order for all three parties to benefit.

When I’ve worn my other hat as a small business and start up consultant, I’ve heard excuses like “I dowan to take Gahmen money sekali got strings attached”, or “Customer don’t want to change contract”, even when presented with really, really attractive grants and cash incentives which have no strings attached (unless you think that “strings” include paying taxes).

It is exasperating. If these companies don’t revisit the opportunities available now to benefit everyone, they’re going to be in for a rough ride when they’re left behind, while the early adopters reap the benefits of a transformed economy.

It is timely this National Day (the one before the Big 50) that we pay heed to these steps and not just wish for it to happen. We need to work towards this transformation. The buck stops with everyone.

Proposed Structure
Proposed Structure

Security Association Shooting Themselves In The Foot

T. Mogan and Friends: Do these guards know that they’re posing for a photo accompanying an interview which asks NOT to raise pay?
T. Mogan and Friends: Do these guards know that they’re posing for a photo accompanying an interview which asks NOT to raise pay?

I read with some dismay last month the Security Association of Singapore’s chief’s statement about proposed progressive wage model guides for security professionals.

It is positions like that which pose the biggest obstacles to better jobs and working conditions for lower income workers which NTUC has been calling for. Security guards remain one of the lowest paid workers in Singapore, and it is damn sian to hear people complaining that “gahmen don’t care about low wage workers” while at the same time railing against proposed improved wages.

Mr T. Mogan’s complaint in the ST interview, that “flexibility” is needed in place of Progressive Wage increases are a disservice to his industry.

The whole idea of progressive wages (as opposed to a wholesale minimum wage system) is flexibility. You don’t raise wages just ‘cos you think you need to – the work that is tied to the wage increase has to be improved.

Furthermore, security companies have also been complaining that since the rule was implemented several years ago to restrict security professionals to Singaporeans and PRs, “cannot find security officers – nobody want to work”.

As a friend in the HR business puts it – “then pay them more lah, wah lao.”

Before you get more shrill in your protests about higher overheads and needing to shut your businesses down, please, read on:

Your security business is in need of a serious revamp. The entire industry is. This dependence on low wage workers to service clients in a 24hr a day service is so very obviously not sustainable. I’m sorry, but you have to be the ones, together with your customers, to bite the bullet.

You may well protest against even that – saying you have done everything you can – improved the workers’ wages and trained them – but the fact remains that your customers still need to have 24hr a day security guarding, and that has become a lot more expensive with the wage increase, and therefore a wage increase does not and cannot create an increase in productivity.

But what if you exercised the other letter in the acronym PIC (Productivity and Innovation Credit – see also “free Gahmen money”): “Innovation”?

What if you took the shocking step of telling your customer, “eh boss, acherly hor, you no need 2 shifts x 12hr x day security guard – we can use centralized CCTV so you share one team of 2 roving security guards for this 16 square km area. Any sign of trouble – like somebody forget to close security door, the alarm will alert the guards to come and investigate. Around the same price. Can?”

Who will foot the bill, you say? That’s too radical, you say?

There’s a Swedish company in Singapore that’s already doing that – Securitas. Roving guard teams, state-of-art surveillance systems, centralized security details, highly trained and certified officers who are paid higher than industry standard. Smart, happy security guards backed by technology. Who dowan?

The more Singapore security companies start to innovate, the more customers will get round to understanding what they need. It’s the same like in 2007 – people didn’t know they needed a smart phone which could do everything else apart from making voice calls, and which in fact has reduced the number of voice calls.

For instance, most condos don’t actually need security guards if you think about it. You don’t even really need a doorman or a carpark attendant – which is what most condo guards double and triple up as. Replace this staffing with one daytime caretaker and a security surveillance system like the one described above. Double confirm can one.

As to who will foot the bill, sorry friend, you have to put some money down into the industry you’ve known and loved and want to see improved. But don’t worry, got free monies in the form of PIC, NTUC’s e2i Inclusive Growth Programme and more.

If you take a look here, you’ll see that in some instances, if you wanted to invest in $100,000 worth of equipment/software, you may only end up effectively paying $5,000 of the total cost, and think that Christmas has come early.

Meantime, tolong please, raise pay – gahmen will pay 40% of your wage increase.

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.