Fixing Low Wages: Buck Also Stops At Employers’

Out of curiosity, I attended the Ordinary Delegates’ Conference of the National Trades Union Congress at Far Far Away Country Club (Orchid Country Club) on Tuesday.

As with many things to do with Singapore, there’s little pomp and ceremony to do with these things if you were to compare with our neighbouring countries: it is said that the world stands still when a Malaysian minister attends the opening of an umbrella.

There was still some ritual involved – calling the conference to order and declaring quorum and all that. But I was a bit disappointed to discover that union leaders were now addressing each other as “brother” and “sister”, much like a mega-church congregation, rather than the historically more significant and gender-neutral “comrade”.

OK enough of my frivolity and nongsern. More serious reactions to what was said at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates’ Conference by Ministers and union leaders were predictably swift.

Most of the complaints come from people who are not convinced that the government is making efforts to improve the lot of lower wage workers primarily because they feel that low-wages were made endemic by policies of the same government which were intended to fix a critical labour shortage.

Tripartism – a term often bandied about by the labour movement – refers to the workings of the unions, the government and employers in concert.

I don’t think there’s any other jurisdiction in the world where it’s been so effective for so long. But tripartism is only as effective as the weakest link.

With unions pushing for better wages through Progressive Wage Model and the government handing out subsidies, the slack seems to be appearing in the third partner’s hands. Sadly it is the employers who are directly in control of workers’ wages.

Still, it is helpful to note that attempting to achieve equilibrium between the labour market and the economic and social health of the nation is always going to be a fluid task that never ends. That’s why I’m thankful for those among our leaders who are able to recognise bottlenecks as they appear, have the political will and ability to make running repairs while attempting to define and crystallise the will of the people.

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.

This Blog Has Been Rallied

I’m a bit excited about this blog being highlighted (at around the 28-minute mark of the video) at an NTUC May Day Rally. Never in a million years would I have thunk it. Seriously. My friends are making fun of me.

If you’re at all interested in the rest of the rally – do watch the clip. It may just help you understand a bit more about industrial relations in Singapore, or at the very least, give you a more informed reason to protest against the current state of affairs.

Don’t worry, this video can pause as and when you like, and allow you to come back and continue watching at your convenience. Don’t just simply rely on the usual news outlet soundbites.

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.