Challenge for Singapore workers to change with times

Office workers at Raffles Place.
Office workers at Raffles Place.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singaporeans have long learnt that no job can remain still forever, and workers have changed with the times. They will be put to the test yet again and the coming challenge will not be easy to tackle.

Labour pains, so to speak, are being felt all over the world. I saw it first-hand among migrant workers in Europe when I went on a cruise on the Rhine last December.

The menial workers on the cruise ship, which was not big, were disproportionately from Romania (mostly), Hungary (4), Serbia (1), Indonesia (2), and the Philippines (1). They were housekeepers, waiters, kitchen staff, laundry staff.

Only two workers of similar nationality held an upper-echelon job on the ship, such as tour director, cruise manager and captain. These posts were generally held by western Europeans, but the captain's deputy was a Hungarian and the cruise manager was half Croatian and half Italian. Also, being married to an Italian, she would have passed as a western European.

The housekeepers were the lower-wage workers I encountered most frequently. They start work at 7am and continue up to at least 8pm. Every time I leave my room, someone tidies it up and replaces soiled towels before I return.

One young Romanian woman, who not only does housekeeping but also doubles as a masseuse when needed, told me that her long-term plan was to enrol in a university and graduate as a qualified physiotherapist. Meanwhile, she slogs on.

An elderly Hungarian housekeeper was very blunt about why he sought work outside Hungary. He said that if he worked in his homeland, he would earn €350 (S$550) a month; on this cruise ship, he earns double that amount. Even so, the money does not get him far because prices in Hungary are not much lower than in affluent west European countries, he claimed.

They were workers who held themselves well and were reluctant to share any personal information with clients of the cruise operator. But I suppose they were intrigued enough by this little grey-haired Chinese woman who walked up and down the corridor with weights in her hands, even before they started cleaning rooms at 7am.

How wide is the income gap between the countries where these lower-wage workers come from and better-off nations in Europe? Using World Bank data, it appears that Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and France (not to mention Singapore) are doing much better than Spain and Greece, which, in turn, are doing better than Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

The Greeks and Spaniards earn much less than the Swiss and Singaporeans, and those from other countries above them in the table, but they earn considerably more than those at the bottom, such as the Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians.

While the large number of Romanians doing menial work on this cruise ship was not unexpected, I was surprised by how seriously they took their work. There was pride in doing even a so-called lowly job.

When I said my room did not need tidying at 8pm, the housekeeper looked rather disturbed. It seemed he felt he would be neglecting his duty if he did not at least turn down my bed.

The only other country, in my experience, where housekeepers give as good service is Japan, where it is part of the national DNA to take pride in one's job, no matter how menial it may be.

Romanians leaving their country to seek jobs in other European countries is a well-known fact. Corruption had ruined the nation. Before the Soviet Union broke up formally, Romania had imploded. It was run by a dictator - former president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, who left a bitter legacy still felt today. People were mistreated and taxpayers' money was splurged on non-essentials.

I saw what Romania was like in 1970 on a state visit with my parents. Mama and I paid a courtesy call on the President's wife. The house was big and sumptuously decorated. Even the guest house we were put up in had a swimming pool. We were taken via cable car to visit a ski resort, but I did not see any skiers.

Luxuries are still alien to the Romanians as they struggle to earn a living. I wondered why jobless Greeks and Spaniards did not follow in the footsteps of the Romanians. There are high rates of unemployment in Greece and Spain, with gross national per capita in the middle range - even higher joblessness than in the countries ranked below them.

Do people avoid looking for jobs in foreign countries because they have over-generous social benefits for the unemployed? It is difficult to compare social benefits for the unemployed of different countries because of differing criteria for eligibility and the quantum of benefits.

But I am convinced that unemployment benefits in the form of welfare handouts kill the spirit to work. While training in paediatric epilepsy in Toronto in 1992, I overheard talk among local men who showed no concern about losing a job, because of generous unemployment payments.

No one has reminded the Greeks and Spaniards that there is no free lunch.

Here, despite the lack of cushy unemployment perks, Singaporeans are picky about jobs.

No Singaporean is willing to work as a maid in a private family. Almost no Singaporean is willing to do more physically challenging, unpleasant plus potentially dangerous jobs. Just a few are willing to work as foremen or supervisors at worksites.

So, what is Singapore's labour profile? I posed the question to a friend working in the Manpower Ministry. The labour force participation rate is high, indicating that people do work for their living.

Long-term unemployment is small (less than 1 per cent). Those able to work but who choose not to do so for whatever reasons might find that they do not qualify for welfare support.

For those who are employed, they must be prepared for jobs to change in order to keep working.

Jobs will be redesigned to take account of a tight labour market, due to low birth rates and ageing. And jobs may disappear as technology gets smarter and is applied to jobs traditionally done by humans.

Against this backdrop, I hope Singaporeans will never be tested in the way the Romanians, Spaniards and Greeks are.

Yet, we must be prepared for the worst scenario as the latest news is disturbing. Foreign investments have dropped but the number of skilled jobs is set to grow. Can our population easily adapt to the next wave of skilled jobs?

While we try to remain optimistic, we must be mentally prepared for a potentially stressful period ahead and try our best to change with the times. Every Singaporean must take this as a personal challenge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Challenge for S'pore workers to change with times'. Subscribe