Progressive wages for workers in food services sector under study

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad (second from left) and U SME director Yeo Wanling (second from right) visit Jumbo Seafood restaurant in Upper Circular Road on Feb 4, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Consumers may have to pay more when eating out so low-wage workers, including cooks, waiters and kitchen assistants, can see higher wages.

This could be the impact of a move to raise the income of low-wage workers in the food service sector, said Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad on Thursday (Feb 4).

He was speaking to the media after a visit to Jumbo Seafood restaurant in Upper Circular Road, a trip he made to better understand the obstacles in uplifting low-wage workers in the food service sector.

Mr Zaqy said the Tripartite Workgroup on Lower-Wage Workers, which he chairs, is exploring ways to improve the well-being of such workers.

One approach is to extend the progressive wage model (PWM) to the food service sector, where wages rise along with skills training and improvements in productivity.

But higher wages may result in rising costs that could trickle down to consumers, said Mr Zaqy.

"There will always be that element that we may have to review cost structures, prices, and how this would impact consumers," he noted.

"If we do too much, the impact on consumers would be significant, but if we do too little, it may invite criticisms that our efforts to help lower-wage workers do not work well. We need to calibrate our efforts."

About 60 per cent of the sector's resident full-time workers currently receive salaries that are at or below the bottom 20th wage percentile of the local workforce.

In studying the idea of wage progression, the group is exploring if this can work across the diverse food service sector, which has everything from fine dining restaurants and fast-food joints to coffee shops and food caterers.

Mr Zaqy said the group also needs to consider that firms may be at different stages of recovery from the ongoing pandemic and have concerns about the business costs.

The group would need more time to look at these different sub-sectors, he added.

"There are different segments that we need to look at, and be careful in how we implemented a PWM if we decide to do so."

The PWM approach sets out minimum salaries for local workers in various roles along a career and skills progression framework. It also outlines the career progression pathway for workers in the sector.

Since it was formed in October last year, the tripartite group has been studying various sectors that could potentially implement progressive wage models within them.

The group comprises industry leaders from the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), union leaders and senior civil servants from agencies involved with low-wage workers.

It aims to provide an interim update by the middle of this year and complete its work by the first quarter of 2022.

On Thursday, Mr Zaqy was joined by SNEF executive director Sim Gim Guan and Ms Yeo Wan Ling, a director of U SME, the National Trades Union Congress' small and medium-sized enterprise arm.

On the food services sector, Ms Yeo said workers generally want to upskill themselves and rise up the career ladder.

But jobs have to be redesigned as well, to attract more Singaporean employees, including young people and women juggling caregiving responsibilities, to the sector, she added.

Jumbo Seafood executive chef Ng Zi Yang had joined the company in 2007 as a kitchen helper, but has since progressed to a management role where he oversees a cluster of six outlets.

Despite joining the firm with little experience, he rose through the ranks to be assigned different responsibilities. He also attended training programmes, including leadership courses.

"With a progressive wage model, more workers will know what they can do to progress in their careers," said the 33-year-old, who is now responsible for ensuring compliance to food safety and quality control standards.

"Hopefully, it will also encourage the younger generation to join the sector."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.