Low-wage workers shop for more pay

Tight labour market in cleaning, security sectors drives job-hopping

Lower-paid workers are "job- hopping" to find better prospects in a tightening labour market - causing a chain reaction that is seeing employers and service buyers pay more for their skills, industry players and union officials say.

Last month, the National Wages Council (NWC) suggested a pay rise of at least $60 a month for workers earning up to $1,000 - mainly those in the cleaning, security and landscaping sectors.

Last year's recommendation was an increase of at least $50 for such employees, which eight in 10 unionised companies gave. However, only three out of 10 non-unionised firms followed suit. But even non-union firms may find it hard to avoid raising salaries as the labour crunch continues.

One cleaning company, which declined to be named, said it is "very common for workers to job-hop now, even for a $5 or $10 increase". That firm has managed to hold on to its staff by granting pay rises and intends to follow this year's NWC guidelines too.

With firms fighting over a limited pool of workers in industries such as cleaning and security, workers have little need to stay in a poorly paying job.

"Now, if you don't give them the proper pay increase, they can just move to another place," said Mr Nasordin Mohamad Hashim, president of the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu).

One firm that has seen such job-hopping is ISS Facility Services, which pays its cleaners at least $1,000 a month. It has hired workers from other cleaning firms who sought better terms.

It must also pay enough so current workers stay, said human capital development director Faith Wong: "The pressure is also on retaining strategies."

Yet these firms, which provide outsourced services, are constrained by contracts with clients as well. "If buyers cannot accept the cost increase, they also tie our hands," said Ms Wong.

This year's NWC guidelines call on service buyers to do their part by factoring annual wage adjustments for workers into their contracts, or allowing for the contract values to be adjusted.

Mr Jimmie Ling, for one, thinks the labour crunch will encourage service buyers to see the light.

He is the chief executive officer of the Association of Management Corporations in Singapore, whose members manage condominiums. They "have started to realise that they cannot continue to maintain this kind of (low) contract rates, if they want to still have enough workers provided", he said.

In taking the lead to raise outsourcing standards, the public sector has also fuelled job-hopping.

Since April, only accredited cleaning firms adopting the progressive wage model - which sets minimum wage benchmarks - have been allowed to land government contracts. Some cleaning firms have seen their workers leave to join firms that handle government contracts, said Batu executive secretary Zainal Sapari.

Statistics suggest a lot of movement in low-wage industries.

Last year, cleaners and labourers in the cleaning and landscaping sector had one of the top average monthly resignation rates, at 5.1 per cent. Their recruitment rate of 5.3 per cent was also among the highest. It was the same for the security industry.

One happy job-hopper is Madam Lynn Lee, 51, who joined ISS Facility Services three months ago. Her previous employer paid her $900 a month with no annual bonus. Now she makes $1,000 and is due a raise and half-month bonus later this year. The benefits, work environment and colleagues at ISS are good, she said.

But for workers like herself, the basics remain key. Said Madam Lee in Mandarin: "Of course, the money should be good. That's what we're working for."

janiceh@sph.com.sg

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