Singapore Budget 2015: More help for low-wage workers in SMEs and freelancers

SINGAPORE - A committee tasked to improve the lot of low-wage workers will focus on those in small and medium enterprises, and doing casual work, including freelance work.

It will also look at redesigning jobs and raising productivity, particularly in low-wage sectors like retail, and at encouraging companies to outsource based on competence rather than price.

This is the focus of the Tripartite Committee for Low-wage Workers and Inclusive Growth (TriCom) in its current two-year term that ends in 2017, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi on Monday.

He was speaking on the new steps being taken to ensure low-wage workers are well taken care of, during the parliamentary debate on his ministry's budget.

Meanwhile, the Government will continue to work with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to reach out to more vulnerable low-wage workers, including giving support to its additional U Care Centres, where these workers can go for job help.

TriCom was formed in 2010 to strengthen Government policies targeted at low-wage earners. These policies include Workfare to supplement the income of these workers, and WorkRight, which educates them on their workplace rights.

In its current term, Tricom will also develop, where necessary, measures to move casual workers into more secure jobs with better pay and working conditions.

And it will look at raising productivity in the sectors where low-wage workers are common, such as retail, logistics and food and beverage (F&B).

To illustrate the push to boost productivity, Mr Hawazi cited local company Baker's Heaven.

It automated its production process, a move that nearly halved its production time. In turn, wages rose by up to 10 per cent for employees trained to work the machines.

"While there are ongoing broader efforts to raise productivity, the TriCom aims to provide specific recommendations on how we can do so for jobs commonly undertaken by low-wage workers," he said. "This can yield tangible and meaningful benefits for all stakeholders."

He also said Tricom will look at what more can be done to ensure companies move away from contracts based on price alone and the number of workers needed.

To heighten the workers' awareness of the avenues for help, the Government will work closely with the NTUC, said Mr Hawazi.

At the moment, the workers can get workplace advice and job referral services, among others, at the U Care Centre at the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability in Jurong East. It was set up by the NTUC with funding support from the Government.

Plans are afoot to increase access to its services in the heartlands.

The drive to help low-wage workers was initiated 10 years ago, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set up a ministerial committee to address the challenges they face.

"We have made progress in the last decade…With the various policies and programmes we have in place, our low-wage workers today are better supported than they were 10 years ago," Mr Hawazi said in his reply to Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC).

He cited the WorkFare scheme and the progressive wage model(PWM), a wage ladder that sees salaries rise as workers gain better skills.

The Government has agreed to enforce the wage model in three sectors - cleaning, security and landscaping. The PWM for the first two sectors have been announced, with that for landscaping due to be released this year.

Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam and Nominated MP K Karthikeyan asked if the PWM could be extended. Mr Hawazi said the unions had been working on negotiating PWMs with employers in sectors such as hotels, food and beverage and retail.

But the Government, he added, had no plans to extend the mandatory PWM beyond these three sectors.

"We should allow the market to determine a suitable trajectory of wages based on productivity improvements over time," he said.