Along with cleaners, security officers have found themselves struggling at the bottom of the wage ladder. This is so despite the essential work that both groups do. The wage depression of cleaners, evident from 2001 to 2010, has been reversed gradually. Their prospects received a boost last year following recommendations of a pay rise made by the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners. Now, the Security Tripartite Cluster has unveiled details of its proposals that will see security officers being paid more, while working fewer overtime hours each month, in the future. Their basic pay will go up by around $300 by 2021, and they will receive an annual increment of at least 3 per cent in the three years after that. All security officers will be allowed to put in a maximum of only 72 overtime hours a month.
It is only fair that workers in this sector - which places a premium on physical ability and mental alertness - should not have to depend excessively on overtime pay. Instead, basic pay and increments should provide reasonable overall wages. Indeed, given that long working hours are often cited as a reason for workers leaving the industry, the recommendations address a key concern in a sector whose importance can only grow with the need for Singapore to be vigilant against security threats such as terrorism. Fatigue and low morale are chinks in a national armour that must be strong enough to deter insidious attacks.
The work of the tripartite clusters draws attention to the role of low-income workers in the economy. They would never be able to beat the odds on their own were their fortunes to be left entirely to the demand-supply trajectories of the market economy. Supply is bound to be plentiful in these sectors given the relatively low skill barriers to entry. Demand, too, has responded to the vicissitudes of a market where competition has driven companies into a race to the bottom to win tenders. Some cleaners, for example, found their pay and benefits, like paid leave, falling back to the minimum level when there was a change in service providers or when contracts with service buyers, like building owners, were renewed.
Such "resets", over which employees have no control, placed an unfair burden on them. The progressive wage model offers a structural answer to the predicament of workers in the cleaning, landscape and security sectors by raising their salaries through skills upgrading and improvements in productivity. This way, the model also serves to set higher standards in industries and to point them in the direction of necessary and sustainable change. The review of the model in the security sector will benefit more than 34,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents. It underlines the meaningful difference that tripartism can make to the everyday lives of some of Singapore's most vulnerable workers.