What it was like being in the shoes of 'invisible' workers

Even a short stint lays bare the hardships they face in tiring and ill-understood jobs

I met security guard Edmund Chua in August 2012. The 57-year-old stood out among the many workers I had met as part of my job covering manpower for The Straits Times.

As we talked, he told me about the long hours he puts in - 12 hours a day, six days a week - doing a job that many look down on. And he was describing how tired he was.

Then he stopped, sighed, and said wearily: "Mr Toh, you are a reporter, how would you understand what we go through?"

Days went by. Weeks even. But for some reason, what Mr Chua said stayed with me. He had pricked my conscience, and planted the idea of putting myself in the shoes of low-wage earners and people doing "invisible jobs".

It took two years, but I finally managed to do just that. Over the past three Sundays, I have reported on my stints as a security guard, a cabby and an eldercare worker.

I picked those jobs because they represent three distinct segments of the services sector, which employs about two in three workers here.

Security guards are low-wage workers in an industry that has to battle low morale and cope despite a shortage of about 10,000 people.

Eldercare jobs are unglamorous but workers in this area will become increasingly essential as Singapore's population ages.

Taxi drivers? Practically everyone who has taken a taxi in Singapore has a long list of complaints about cabbies and usually an unflattering opinion of them.

I spent 11 days in July as a cabby, another four days that month as a security guard at a District 9 condominium and a Little India worksite, and five days in August as an eldercare worker at the Touch Seniors Activity Centre in Geylang Bahru.

These experiences gave me a greater insight into the three jobs than I had imagined possible.

Last month, a week before my report on being a cabby appeared, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it would be raising the number of on-the-road hours for taxis next year.

From next month, every taxi operator here has to ensure that at least 85 per cent of its fleet meets a daily minimum mileage requirement of 250km on weekdays, and is on the road during all peak periods - up from 80 per cent now.

I had spent less than a fortnight as a cabby, but the news made me groan because I knew immediately what it meant for more than a third of Singapore's taxi drivers.

Of the 28,000 taxis on the road here, 10,000 are driven by cabbies who have no relief drivers. These cabbies prefer to work alone, to avoid issues such as relief drivers who do not turn up or who fail to maintain the cars well.

I was among these one-man-show cabbies, and to meet the existing requirements, I had to stay on the road for 10 to 11 hours a day. The new requirement means such cabbies will have to drive for 12 hours or more a day.

I would split my shift, driving in the morning and then again in the evening and at night. I was exhausted by the end of each day, and late one night, I almost had an accident after having been on the road non-stop for six hours.

I wonder if the LTA or taxi firms track whether cabbies who drive solo tend to be in more accidents, or how fatigue affects cabbies.

My four days as a security guard taught me enough to not only appreciate the long hours that these workers clock, six days a week, but also realise how meaningless some of their tasks are.

Why waste scarce resources on manning carpark barriers, endless and aimless patrols, or issuing passes to contractors? Some of these tasks could easily be automated.

A week of working with senior citizens and needy, frail elderly in rental flats brought home to me how tough it will be to look after Singapore's swelling ranks of ageing people.

You cannot automate looking after old people in various states of physical decline. Caring for them means everything from spending time chatting with them to keeping them engaged with games and exercise, as well as checking on their living conditions and fixing things that go wrong.

Today, 4,000 people work with the elderly and, by 2020, Singapore will need another 12,000 such workers. Where will they come from, when the labour market is so tight, and young people and existing workers could well find the vocation unappealing?

Many readers ask what has struck me about how to make life better for cabbies, security guards and eldercare workers.

For taxi drivers, more can be done for their personal welfare, and I'm going to say public toilets are No. 1 on my list.

Petrol stations are where cabbies stop for relief, and some toilets at petrol stations are simply awful. And when you hit a no-petrol-station zone such as Orchard Road or the Central Business District, there are no easily accessible public toilets for cabbies. Something needs to be done.

I also worry for cabbies who have to cover daily rentals that go as high as $134 even for regular cabs, and who have no safety net such as the Central Provident Fund or health insurance.

Taxi company SMRT waived the rental on my cab during my fortnight as a driver, to let me donate all my takings to charity, but if I had needed to pay the rental fee, it would have sucked up six to seven hours' worth of my earnings each day.

The National Taxi Association, which represents more than 13,000 cabbies, must be commended for providing some low-cost health and dental care packages and for giving cabbies social benefits that other union members enjoy, such as shopping rebates at NTUC FairPrice.

I hope taxi companies can do more to find ways to give cabbies some of the benefits that employed staff often take for granted.

For example, SMRT gives some of its drivers up to 12 rent-free days a year. This allows them to rest without having to worry about covering the rental. Other taxi firms also give rent-free days, but it is not known to what extent.

For security guards, the top priority must surely be to break the dreadful work cycle of 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Labour laws say workers cannot put in more than six hours without a break, but allow exceptions for workers such as security guards, who can do up to eight hours at a stretch.

It is no surprise that even though there are 70,000 people qualified to work as guards, only 33,000 actually do so.

There is a shortfall of 10,000 guards. Cutting the long hours might be the first step to drawing trained guards back to work.

For eldercare workers, emotional support is crucial because it is draining to work so closely with the elderly and the sick every day.

To cope, the staff at the centre where I worked have formed their own peer support network, and they also make the effort to have breakfast together as a team.

Eldercare workers cannot be left to feel isolated. Voluntary welfare organisations that run eldercare facilities need to form support networks for their staff, especially when some senior activity centres have as few as two workers.

Looking back at my three stints and seeing the response from many readers who wrote to me or posted their comments on The Straits Times' Facebook page, I realise that cabbies, guards and eldercare workers are not the only "invisible workers" among us.

Numerous readers told me there are many more jobs that are not well understood. They suggested examining the working lives of the coffee shop boy, gardener, childcare teacher, garbage truck driver, parking enforcement officer, car repossession man, car valet, town council customer service officer and hawker, among others.

What they were saying, really, is that there are many workers who serve the public in often difficult conditions and who deserve acknowledgment, appreciation and improved working conditions or benefits.

Some readers felt it would be good if politicians, policymakers and those who make the rules that affect our invisible workers also tried out such jobs for a short time.

When my cabby story was published online, reader Tan Kah Kiat responded on the newspaper's Facebook page and asked: "Why never jio Tuck Yew drive taxi also?" He meant, why hadn't I invited Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew to drive a cab as well.

It is not hard to understand the sentiment behind such comments.

Edmund Chua the security guard was right when he set me on this journey of discovery: It's hard to understand the invisible workers in our midst until we walk in their shoes.

tohyc@sph.com.sg

This story was first published on Dec 14, 2014