Greener pastures for landscape workers

AFTER cleaners and security guards, local landscape workers will benefit from mandated higher wages announced recently. These predominantly outsourced industries suffered from the bane of unconscionably low wages before the Government decided to act. Their fate was ironical, particularly because each industry makes a necessary contribution to Singapore's overall well-being. The image of a clean city is very much the result of workers who ensure that garbage and litter do not poison the environment. Security guards help uphold its reputation as a safe city. Landscape workers nurture Singapore's green image as a garden city. Recognising their contributions should be part of the pride that Singaporeans take in the creation of a First World city.

No less compelling is the case to be made from the principle of equity. The current median basic wage for landscape workers, of around $1,000, has existed stubbornly since 2009. As with cleaners and security guards, such low salaries raise uncomfortable questions about the possible formation of an economic underclass. Not only would that group find it difficult to make ends meet, but also, its CPF contributions would be low. Thus, its members would be vulnerable in retirement and could end up as a burden on society in their old age. Mandating higher wages now addresses a future problem.

About 3,000 workers will benefit from the change. However, equitability must coexist with economic rationality. The Tripartite Cluster for the Landscape Industry recognises this logic by pegging pay hikes - its recommended starting pay is $1,300 for full-time resident landscape maintenance workers - to training. Emphasis on skills upgrading is an intrinsic part of a progressive wage model, which encourages workers to play their due role in justifying and sustaining salary increases. The model obliges employers as well to heed the need for change. Thus, implementing it will be mandatory for companies competing for contracts given out by the National Parks Board.

Such changes are necessary not only to motivate and keep existing landscape workers but also to attract younger workers to the profession. A reasonable salary and opportunities of career progression, based on the acquisition of skills, are essential if the industry is not to wither in the perceptions and expectations of younger Singaporeans. The progressive wage model is ultimately about meeting this challenge. Private organisations and condominium managements should complement the labour movement's efforts in uplifting both salaries and standards. The additional cost they would incur would be small compared to the benefit of reliability offered by motivated crews.