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.

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).

The Progressive Wage Model Looks Horrible On Paper (Literally)

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I am extremely impressed at NTUC Secretary-General’s aversion to Powerpoint. I would have switched off at probably the second slide or so if he had used it.

Instead (you can see an example of his freehand presentation in this video at 0:53s) there was a refreshingly engaging encounter as Mr Lim Swee Say spent over two hours explaining the role of the NTUC, how he got to become Secretary-General, and what his aims were in trying to improve the labour market situation as well as ameliorate the social costs of economic growth.

Unless you’re an economist, or labour market policy maker, you’re likely to still find the session as interesting as watching the glowing logo on top of the NTUC Centre building change colour. Or less.

I was still curious to know why there was an aversion to a mandatory national minimum wage, or even different minimum wages for different industries. Some supporters of minimum wage already claim that Singapore isn’t doing enough to lift the lowest wages off the floor, like what Hong Kong (HKD 3,580 per month for foreign domestic workers) and Malaysia (USD 281.60 per month for the private sector) are doing.

There is no such thing as the perfect market, and Mr Upturn The Downturn gave a refresher course on labour economics for those turned off because a junior college economics lecturer insisted on referring to something called “Kee-Nee-Sian” economics. (It was only in my first semester of university, after having been made the laughing stock of my first year econs class that I started pronouncing it as students of John Maynard Keynes intended.)

Two permanent ink marker pens and six sheets later, I was aware of a thing called the Progressive Wage Model, as opposed to a silver bullet or “shock therapy” Minimum Wage Model proposed by some.

Instead of merely boosting pay, the labour movement has been, since June last year, aiming to improve the lowest earning workers’ “productivity, skills and career prospects” by means of highly subsidised skills training. The NTUC has also been apparently instrumental in getting government ministries and agencies – themselves very large employers, to only engage companies who let their staff participate in skills training – a move which will earn them accreditation necessary to win government contracts.

The NTUC also has to work in concert with Government to ensure that jobs are created, and that these jobs are filled without employers resorting to and relying on cheap, imported labour at the expense of productivity.

It is a tough balance to strike, and whether the Progressive Wage Model is a better model than a one-stop Minimum Wage as Lim Swee Say says it is may be a bit too early to tell.

I will have you all know that it hasn’t got much to do with Cheaperer, Betterer, Fasterer. The Secretary-General did attempt to explain his much maligned motto in context, but that’s for another story.