COVID-19 SPECIAL: Home Front

Coronavirus: All hands on deck needed to improve low-wage workers' lot

Are Singaporeans prepared to pay more for domestic services so pay and work conditions for the low-income can improve?

The Covid-19 outbreak has shone the spotlight on the plight of low-wage workers in Singapore.

They clean our estates, offices and hawker centres, they build our homes and offices, and they check for vital signs and care for our sick and elderly, among other jobs.

Many are in roles critical to our lives, but they labour often unseen and unappreciated in regular times. It has taken a public health crisis to highlight again how the treatment of these workers - many of whom are older Singaporeans or lower-paid migrants - leaves much to be desired.

In the debate last month on the supplementary budget measures to help Singapore through the crisis, several MPs highlighted the struggles of workers in sectors such as healthcare and cleaning whose wages do not seem commensurate with the vital importance of their roles, especially during a virus outbreak.

Workers' Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh called for a thorough review of what a living wage in Singapore ought to be for Singaporeans "who man our critical infrastructure and keep the country's heart beating", just as food security and critical supply chains are being strengthened.

Yesterday, the Government, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and employer organisations issued a tripartite advisory with recommendations on measures that service buyers and providers should adopt to ensure the sustainability of the security sector in view of Covid-19.

These include paying security officers and firms fairly, and looking after officers' workplace safety and health, such as by providing personal protective equipment.

This is the second such advisory - the first, for the cleaning sector, was issued last month - and others will be announced progressively, said the Ministry of Manpower.

This is a welcome move in signalling to service buyers that the welfare of workers must be taken into account when they evaluate contracts.

With many aspects of work being relooked due to the crisis, now is a good time to examine what needs to change about how we support low-wage workers.

WAGES

Wages remain an issue for this group, especially during this crisis. With the circuit breaker measures shutting most workplaces to stem the spread of Covid-19, low-wage workers are in an even tougher position if they are put on no-pay leave or laid off.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

To help low-income Singaporean employees during the economic uncertainty, those on Workfare will receive a Workfare Special Payment this year of $3,000 in cash.

This was among measures announced in this year's Budget and enhanced in the supplementary budgets, which also include the one-off $600 Solidarity Payment for all adult Singaporeans.

Other efforts have focused on ensuring workers still get paid during the crisis, such as the Jobs Support Scheme, a wage subsidy that pays up to 75 per cent of the first $4,600 of gross monthly wages for local workers for nine months.

 

Economist and Nominated MP Walter Theseira also suggested in Parliament last month that all Singaporeans receive $110 a week for 12 weeks, funded through a temporary personal income tax hike of 4.25 per cent, paid next year when the economy is expected to have recovered. Under his proposal, dubbed the Majulah Universal Basic Income Scheme, the less well-off will benefit more from the scheme, while the high-income will help to finance it.

Beyond this crisis, however, the issue of low wages persists in certain sectors.

Observers say this is a chicken and egg problem.

Employers cannot find enough locals to clean estates, guard buildings or work on construction sites, for example, so they turn to foreigners willing to do the work at low salaries as the pay is still higher than what they could earn back home; locals shun these jobs because they feel the pay is too low and the progression too slow.

 
 
 

Even if some companies which employ outsourced workers like cleaners or security guards want to pay workers more, they risk losing tenders to competitors with lower prices. One cleaning company boss said he lost a project he had been working on for over a decade when a new company offered to do the work for much less.

If service buyers such as mall owners, condominium management committees or property developers look only for the lowest-cost contractors, there is little incentive for employers to pay staff more.

A slew of wage support schemes for workers have been introduced over the years. The Workfare Income Supplement tops up the incomes of those aged 35 and up and earning up to $2,300 a month. The Progressive Wage Model, which effectively sets minimum pay for locals in certain heavily outsourced sectors, has helped in recent years to push up incomes at the lower end.

Greater changes can come only when Singaporeans are prepared to change their habits and pay more for domestic prices which are now underpriced by the prevalence of cheap migrant labour.

Explaining this, Associate Professor Theseira said that in essence, Singapore is operating like a "trickle-up economy". "In other words, so that people can enjoy their cheap hawker food, massages, home cleaning and domestic services, there is this notion that we need to structure the economy around ensuring there is an inexhaustible supply of low-cost labour to provide all these services. I think laying it out in these terms makes it apparent how perverse that reasoning is," he said.

WAY FORWARD

A sure way to improve the welfare of low-wage workers is to pay them more or pay more for their upkeep. But the question then becomes, who pays?

Apart from the service buyer and ultimately the consumer, employers have a key role to play.

For example, CHH Construction System managing director Nelson Tee, who employs about 40 migrant workers, said he pays a higher dorm fee to house them in supervisor rooms which have a lower density of beds.

NTUC assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari said a mindset change is needed where workers must be willing to undergo training to raise their skills and productivity; service buyers move away from "cheap sourcing" and towards outcome-based contracting; and service providers which employ the workers do not bid for contracts at unsustainably low prices.

Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) chairman Yeo Guat Kwang also suggested that employers, caterers and logistics professionals view the provision of food for migrant workers less as a cost to having them here and more as a longer-term investment in their health and well-being.

Indeed, the living conditions of lower-paid foreign workers were highlighted recently when dormitories became huge clusters where the coronavirus has spread. The outbreak highlighted the cramped and poorly maintained living spaces of some of these workers, and their low-quality catered meals.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo assured Parliament on Monday that the Government will see how housing standards for migrant workers can be further raised.

 
 

The general public, too, may need to accept higher prices, for the sake of a more equitable society.

WP's Mr Singh alluded to this when he said in Parliament, "it is time our workers who keep Singapore clean are paid far more respectable wages, with Singaporeans ready to play their part too".

Second, more can be done to empower low-wage workers, such as making available job and training opportunities and salary information.

NTUC has a U Care Centre to support low-wage workers and some of its unions represent cleaners, security guards and other workers with lower pay, who can be local or foreign. Its MWC is among non-government organisations which provide assistance specifically to migrant workers.

Transient Workers Count Too executive committee member Debbie Fordyce suggested making it easier for migrant workers to change employers without having to return to their home countries or fork out money to middlemen or the prospective employer.

Currently, they need their employer's approval to be transferred, or must wait until their work permit is near expiry.

Finally, the jobs that low-wage workers perform must be improved. They can be redesigned to use more technology, such as cleaning robots and centralised security systems already in use at some firms. Such systems make work less strenuous for workers and improve productivity, which can raise wages.

Technology adoption has been slow to catch on due to cost. But the current outbreak may be the push that is needed.

Alexandra Hospital is piloting the use of robots to deliver medicine and meals to patients diagnosed with Covid-19 or those suspected to be infected with the virus in its isolation wards.

 
 

More than 200 ultraviolet disinfecting mobile robots made by local robotics technology firm PBA Group will also be rolled out in shopping malls and the healthcare and transport sectors by the end of the year.

Tackling the issue of low-wage workers' work conditions is pertinent as low birth rates and an ageing society mean Singapore's citizen population will likely decline, and the labour shortage in these sectors will get worse if nothing is done.

The number of Singaporeans aged 20 to 64 is expected to peak at 2.2 million around this year and then decline, even with immigrants.

EVERY WORKER MATTERS

While it is tempting to reduce workers to simply digits counting towards a foreign worker quota, or numbers reported in labour market statistics every quarter, the current crisis is a good reminder that every worker is a human being.

 
 

They build, heal, clean, guard and toil in many other ways that keep the country running.

Singaporeans, firms and charities have rallied together to donate essential items like masks to migrant workers after hearing about their plight. More than $1.2 million has also been raised through ground-up campaigns such as #HOMEFORALL Migrants and an initiative started by local social media personality Preeti Nair.

After the crisis, the challenge to improve the lot of these workers - local or foreign - also requires all Singaporeans to support a change that sees them as valuable additions to the workforce, who deserve fair wages and good living conditions.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2020, with the headline 'All hands on deck needed to improve low-wage workers' lot'. Subscribe