Giving low-wage workers a leg up

The fact that the National Wages Council (NWC) is pressing for a salary rise for low-wage workers for the third year in a row is signal that not enough has been done. The council's persistence attests to the tenacity with which it is seeking to alleviate the plight of the least-privileged workers. If employers accept the NWC's guidelines, workers earning below $1,000 a month could expect a pay hike of at least $60 this year. In pushing for the rights of these workers, the National Trades Union Congress has underlined the need to help lower-income households meet the cost of living in Singapore. Admirably, it tried, although unsuccessfully, to raise the salary threshold so that more workers could get a pay rise.

The suggested minimum built-in increase to the monthly pay for low- wage workers - which was $50 in 2012 and $60 last year - will drive up labour costs, but it is hardly a large sum given that the economy is expected to grow by between 2 per cent and 4 per cent, and that demand for labour is likely to remain strong this year. Employers reluctant to heed the NWC's message should note the agency of these factors, along with the reality that parsimonious behaviour on their part will lead to firms losing workers.

Singaporeans in general need to recognise that higher value should be placed on what low-income workers do, if public health, cleanliness, greenery and security are seen as important markers of the quality of life in a dense city. This realisation is important because employers cannot increase the salaries of outsourced workers unless buyers are willing to pay more in a fiercely competitive tender market.

Some employers have responded with calls to the Government to contain non- wage business costs, such as government charges, regulatory compliance costs and rentals. What employers could do, on their part, is to examine how they could hold their total wage bill constant as a percentage of total operating costs, as Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has suggested. This would mean redistributing the wage shares of employees by taking some money from top management and giving it to those at the bottom. His advice is to close the income gap within each company in order to narrow income inequality within Singapore. The objective of such suggestions - a more inclusive and equitable society - is laudable.

As always, companies must be in good financial health to do more for their workers, beginning with job security. Hence, workers must constantly think of adding value. Productivity holds the key to balancing employees' needs and market realities. Workers owe it to themselves to upgrade their skills and remain valuable, even in a tight labour market.