Minimum wage law will not help pump attendants

No Singaporean will disagree with Professor Tommy Koh's example that the $1,000 a month that a pump attendant earns is not a living wage here (What's the best way to lift pay of low-wage workers? Oct 30).

But a minimum wage law will not, unfortunately, help.

Singapore's petrol stations hire pump attendants because they are prepared to pay $1,000 per attendant to offer this extra service to motorists, and there happens to be takers at this rate. They can easily drop this extra, or reduce the number to one per station, if they are mandated to pay more.

The reality is pump attendants are not essential to petrol stations. The solution for Prof Koh's attendant is to get a "real" job that is not just a discretionary add-on to his employer's operations, thereby commanding a better wage. If he does not have the skills to do so, then that is a larger problem that will not be solved by a minimum wage law.

I have discovered that a good number of pump attendants work only part time during peak hours. I do not know how many hours they work a week. If they are paid $1,000 for less than full time work, then we may have to recast the idea of a living wage on an hourly basis, which is how minimum wages are set in countries that practise them. This may then change the picture.

I also chat with cleaners in the flatted factory I work in from time to time. I was friendly with one uncle who said that he actually did not need to work because his flat had been paid for and his children were earning decent salaries. He worked, he said, to stay fit.

I do not know whether there are more such low-wage Singaporeans who work out of choice, not necessity, and hence are not very particular about wages, especially on a less than full-time basis.

"Low-wage Singaporeans" are thus a heterogeneous lot and broad statistics may not tell the full story.

We must constantly review policies to ensure that they do not impede social mobility. My greatest admiration goes not to policy analysts, but field social workers who painstakingly work on individual cases of real poor Singaporean families to help them reorganise their lives, with the aim of achieving sustainable self-reliance with dignity.

Cheng Shoong Tat

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2018, with the headline 'Minimum wage law will not help pump attendants'. Print Edition | Subscribe