Around eight in 10 Singaporeans are willing to pay more for essential services such as cleaning or security if the extra amount goes to the workers themselves.
They would pay up to 10 per cent or 20 per cent more for such services. This could include service and conservancy charges (S&CC) for Housing Board flat dwellers or maintenance fees for private property owners.
S&CC typically range from $20 to $90 a month for Singaporeans, so a 20 per cent hike could work out to as much as $18 more a month.
The findings, from a survey commissioned by The Sunday Times, come as the coronavirus pandemic has turned the spotlight on the important role of essential workers, and the discrepancy between their value to society and what they earn.
The online survey of some 1,000 respondents aged 16 and above was carried out by Milieu Insight, a Singapore-based consumer research firm. It was done from June 5 to 8 with a nationally representative sampling across age, gender and income groups to capture how people's perceptions of essential workers have changed, if at all, against the backdrop of Covid-19, and whether they would be willing to pay these workers more.
The strong support for higher wages is likely to have been influenced by the outbreak, with 73 per cent of respondents saying they "respect essential workers more now" when asked to what extent the pandemic has affected their views.
Asked who they considered to be essential workers, respondents listed doctors, cleaners, garbage collectors, hawkers and deliverymen.
"Unfortunately, in many societies, the more useful the work is, the less they pay you," labour MP Zainal Sapari, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, noted in Parliament earlier this month.
The cleaning workforce is around 62,000-strong and the security workforce, some 48,000. These are some of the lowest paid occupations among a range of essential work.
Moves have been made in recent years to increase salaries for workers in these jobs. Under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which mandates a wage floor for workers in some industries, wages increased from last year for security officers and from 2017 for cleaners. The monthly basic wage of a security officer is now $1,250 and that of a general cleaner is at least $1,200.
But basic wages for these essential workers still hover in the bottom fifth percentile based on gross monthly wages of resident workers, said Mr Sapari. For instance, the median monthly basic wage of a general office clerk in 2018 was $2,225.
WHAT COMPANIES SHOULD DO
Respondents were also asked what they think companies and the Government should do to increase the wages of essential workers.
Companies should pay workers according to the number of tasks completed instead of by headcount, said 60 per cent of respondents. The more they complete, the more they can be paid.
This was followed by those who suggested hiring more Singaporeans instead of foreigners (47 per cent), and training workers to do more work within the same period to justify a higher pay (46 per cent). About 5 per cent thought companies need not do anything. Respondents could select multiple options.
Indeed, there has been a push in the last few years to move from headcount-based cleaning contracts to outcome-based contracts, said Mr Tony Chooi, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore (Emas).
Singapore National Employers Federation executive director Sim Gim Guan said this would incentivise service providers to improve manpower efficiency and the productivity gained could be shared with the workers.
But sociologist Chua Beng Huat said the assumption that a simple wage rise should be accompanied by higher productivity misses the point of paying a fair wage to the lowest-paid workers.
Said the Yale-NUS College academic: "It assumes that the workers are not already working to their capacity and suggests a greater rate of exploitation of labour."
Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who in Parliament recently urged society to rethink and better value essential, manual work, agreed that tying wages to productivity is a "false equivalence".
He cited examples of how prices for professional services, such as fees for doctors, lawyers and teachers, have risen over time although their productivity has not risen proportionately. This is because people are willing to pay for other aspects of the service, such as quality, rather than the raw output per man-hour, he said.
"We must be prepared to value labour, even if productivity improvements are limited in the traditional sense by the nature of the job," he added.
MAKE HIGHER WAGES MANDATORY
In that vein, respondents said there should be higher Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) payouts for these workers - their top choice (59 per cent) when asked what the Government should do.
This was followed by collecting less in foreign worker levies and mandating companies to pass the savings to workers (56 per cent), and penalising companies that award contracts based solely on price so as to push them to consider performance and quality instead (50 per cent).
Mr Sapari said giving a higher WIS payout for essential service workers may narrow the income gap in the short term and send a signal to encourage more workers to join these industries, but it may not be sustainable in the long run.
The best approach to improve the wages of essential workers, he said, is through the PWM, where compliance is mandatory.
"Without regulations or licensing to ensure across-the-board adherence, progressive employers will find little incentive to pay better wages and benefits as they will be priced out by their competitors who may (lower) tender prices to win contracts," said Mr Sapari, acknowledging that further changes to the PWM for essential services would require the support of unions, employers and the Government.
INCREASING CONDOMINIUM MAINTENANCE FEES A 'NO GO'
At the individual level, Singaporeans such as Ms Juliana Chia, 47, said they are happy to pay more.
Ms Chia, a personal assistant, is willing to give 10 per cent more on top of her condominium's current monthly maintenance fee of $400 if the money goes to the cleaners and security guards.
"I sympathise with the cleaners because there is so much more garbage to clear now that all of us are cooking more and working from home," she said.
But she asked how residents can ensure the extra money really goes to them.
Mr Chan Kok Hong, managing director of Savills Property Management, which helps to oversee the maintenance of various condominiums, said that "increasing the contract price is not the solution".
"The management councils of the condominiums face pressure every year at their annual general meeting. Any suggestion of increases in the maintenance contributions gets thrashed," he said.
Instead, he suggests setting up collection boxes so that residents can give supermarket or food vouchers to the workers.
Another way out, said Mr Chooi of Emas, is for those who wish to pay more to contribute to a fund. "The money could go into to a government-managed fund and the amount could be distributed to all essential workers periodically."