Jamus Lim's remarks on wages draw response from union leaders

Associate Professor Jamus Lim's words have drawn strong reactions from some unionists.
Associate Professor Jamus Lim's words have drawn strong reactions from some unionists.

Remarks made in Parliament by Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim on the topic of a minimum wage last week have drawn a strong response from several unionists.

In Facebook posts and a series of forum letters to The Straits Times and Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, union leaders have accused Associate Professor Lim, an MP for Sengkang GRC, of belittling the work that they have put into tripartite negotiations over the years.

They especially took issue with his choice of words in characterising their views on the issue of low-wage workers' incomes as "folksy wisdom and beliefs".

Prof Lim employed the phrase during an exchange with National Trades Union Congress deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon on the progressive wage model (PWM) and minimum wage during the debate on the Government's strategies to tackle Covid-19 last Thursday.

Dr Koh had said the PWM - a wage ladder that sets out minimum pay and training requirements for workers at different skill levels - has seen significant achievement.

He added that taking a negotiated approach with stakeholders, including veteran union leaders, is important. "Research, reams and reams of data and research is good, but in practice, it's always harder to do because there are practical considerations," he said.

In response, Prof Lim said: "With all due respect, as much as it will be lovely to always rely on folksy wisdom and beliefs by labour union leaders, at the same time, it's important to realise that when we talk about studies that show that the minimum wage does not lead to any appreciable increase in unemployment, this is based on careful consideration and not just beliefs."

Beliefs, he said, are not the same as evidence, and evidence from around the world shows that a minimum wage does not cause widespread unemployment, as long as it is not set too high.

In a letter to The Straits Times Forum page last Saturday, Mr Nasordin Mohd Hashim, the former president of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu), said Prof Lim's comments were "regretful".

He said: "(The comments were) not just belittling our hard work all these years, but also seemingly putting down the intricate issues involved in outsourced industries such as cleaning, landscape and lift maintenance."

Mr Lim Teck Chuan, general secretary of the Metal Industries Workers' Union (Miwu), in a letter to Lianhe Zaobao last Saturday, said he found Prof Lim's "tone and choice of words disrespectful to thousands of union leaders".

Miwu, he said, has played a role in finalising PWM for the lift and escalator sector after 20 months of negotiations, including hours of work spent walking the ground.

"The whole process in formulating this PWM is not based on mere 'folksy beliefs' - it is thoroughly negotiated based on hard data and a firm grasp of current workers' issues," he said.

The Union of Security Employees (USE) and Supply Chain Employees' Union last Thursday, in separate Facebook posts, said their members have walked the ground and improved conditions for workers. Among other things, USE helped to introduce the adoption of PWM as a licensing condition for all security agencies.

USE general secretary Raymond Chin reiterated these points in a Forum letter to ST published today.

Last Saturday, Prof Lim, in a Facebook post, said his argument about how "folksy wisdom" should not form the basis for policy was made in reference to beliefs held by some union leaders about the minimum wage, as cited by Dr Koh.

He added that there was a role for opinion based on personal experience, but policy should be formulated on the basis of "data-driven empirical evidence", and that it is important "not to conflate the two, by using an opinion to refute a study".

Said Prof Lim: "There are many areas where I respect the views of union leaders, such as their empathetic representation of workers under their charge, their ability to negotiate with business owners, and their hard work in support of workers' rights."

Prof Lim, in a forum letter to ST published today, reiterated his view of unionists.

He said his disagreement with Dr Koh on what should be considered in making policy decisions "in no way diminishes my regard for unionists in these other ways, nor does it take away from my appreciation of their work in the past".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2020, with the headline 'Jamus Lim's remarks on wages draw response from union leaders'. Print Edition | Subscribe