Hit by double whammy, waste firms move to transform sector

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng (second from left) and other union representatives observing a garbage truck, which is fitted with a device to unfurl a net to prevent trash from flying out in transit, during their visit to waste management firm W
Mr Ng Chee Meng (second from left) and other union representatives observing a garbage truck, which is fitted with a device to unfurl a net to prevent trash from flying out in transit, at Wah & Hua's refuse processing facility in Kranji Crescent.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

The waste management sector was hit by a double whammy recently amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

With most Singaporeans staying home during the circuit breaker, the amount of waste generated went up by about 15 to 20 per cent on average. But many of the foreigners working in the sector were confined to their dormitories because of the coronavirus.

This challenge triggered a consortium of waste management companies to come up with a road map for transforming their sector by using technology and boosting the skills of workers, said Waste Management and Recycling Association of Singapore chairman Melissa Tan.

Ms Tan, whose Wah & Hua company is among the 17 businesses in the consortium, said a key issue faced by many in the sector is attracting Singaporean workers.

While industry figures are not available, her company's workforce is made up of 60 per cent Singaporeans and 40 per cent foreigners.

She said the pandemic has driven home the importance of relying on Singaporeans who are "here to stay".

"For too long, the waste sector has had an unglamorous image which affected the recruitment of Singaporeans. The road map has thus come at an opportune time when we are facing a foreign manpower crunch made worse by Covid-19," she added.

The road map the consortium is working on with the National Trades Union Congress and the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees Union (Batu) will focus on, among other things, raising wages so as to attract and retain talent, she said.

The other two areas of focus are: provide opportunities for workers to continually upgrade themselves and to adopt technology to improve productivity and safety.

The general waste management industry hires 16,000 workers, with about 12,000 from the general waste collection and recycling sub-sectors expected to benefit from the planned transformation.

The 5,000 or so rank-and-file workers, such as garbage truck attendants, waste sorters and garbage truck drivers, earn a median wage of about $2,000 a month, said Ms Tan.

Over the years, companies in the sector have looked to technology to improve working conditions. For instance, some garbage trucks are fitted with a device that unfurls a net at the push of a button to cover the top of the trucks so that trash does not fly out in transit.

In the past, such tasks were done by workers who had to climb up the trucks to cover it with a canvas sheet. The 15-minute task now takes less than a minute.

With workers making six to eight trips a day, this means up to two hours saved per worker.

Ms Lim Lijuan, director of Boon Poh Refuse Disposal, said implementing the progressive wage model in the sector - an idea mooted by the labour movement - will help raise wages, and could attract more Singaporeans with its promise of more structured career progress.

But if wages go up, consumers must also be prepared to shoulder part of the higher costs, she said.

"It cannot be a position where the Government says we increase workers' pay, but our contract sums do not increase and that means the higher wages impact our operating costs," Ms Lim added.

"We also need to change the mindset of the end-user."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2020, with the headline 'Hit by double whammy, waste firms move to transform sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe