Small businesses offer bigger perks to draw and keep staff

Competition for workers from bigger shops making them more creative

Madam Elizabeth Lai (second from left), 53, owner of E-Waves Fishbyte fishing shop, holding a meeting with her employees, with lunch she brought for them from home thrown in.
Madam Elizabeth Lai (second from left), 53, owner of E-Waves Fishbyte fishing shop, holding a meeting with her employees, with lunch she brought for them from home thrown in. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

This article was first published on Sept 4, 2014

Long hours, less glamour - it is not easy for small businesses in the heartland to attract and keep workers.

So E-Waves Fishbyte owner Elizabeth Lai, 53, goes the extra mile to make her six employees feel like their second home really is a home.

At the fishing tackle shop in a Housing Board shophouse in West Coast, they enjoy free visits to the doctor's, lodging upstairs and home-cooked lunches during Wednesday staff meetings.

"When you have young people, especially fresh graduates, you have to be comparable to normal (big) companies," said the savvy and spirited businesswoman.

Bosses in the heartland are pulling out all the stops to attract locals as they grapple with a manpower crunch, fuelled by tougher foreign worker policies and rising aspirations of Singaporeans.

Employers told The Straits Times that the situation is not so dire yet that heartland shops are closing down en masse, as owners can still man the shops if they cannot hire workers.

However, a few who cannot continue due to old age have had to pull down their shutters or rent out their units to more trendy businesses offering cellphones, haircuts or bubble tea.

"A lot of people are afraid," said Bukit Batok West Merchants' Association president Ong Gee Hong, who has run a tailor shop for around 30 years.

"Many of us have worked in these lines for a long time, and for the last few years, it has been very hard to find good workers," he added.

A big part of the reason is that locals, even if they want to work in retail, prefer to work in shopping malls, which are air-conditioned and perceived as "high-class", compared to the HDB sector, said Mr Ong.

Wages, which range between $1,400 and $1,700 for the average worker, also tend to be lower in heartland shops than in town, said Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore (FMAS) president Yeo Hiang Meng.

To stay ahead of the competition, some small-business owners are offering perks, ranging from bursaries for staff's children to free meals.

At YES Supermarket, which has six outlets in the heartland, staff enjoy corporate discounts on cellphone plans of around 10 per cent, as well as annual leave of up to 21 days, depending on seniority.

The company also engaged a tutor for employees' kids so they could enjoy a group discount.

"At big companies, their names are prestigious, their perks are 'wow'. In order to stay relevant and competitive, we have to be more creative and more personal," said Mr Kwek Hong Lim, the company's managing director and chairman of Tampines N2 Merchants' Association.

Lighting company Bright House, which has around 30 employees, offers staff who have worked for at least three years bursaries when their children score at least 70 marks in school exams. These range from $250 to $800, depending on the child's age.

While it is not known exactly how many jobs there are in the so-called hyper-local economy, FMAS said that according to official estimates, there are some 16,000 heartland shops, including those in HDB-run malls.

The sector also provides essential services to residents in HDB estates, noted North East District Mayor Teo Ser Luck. His office has held two job fairs to try and match vacancies with workers living in Hougang and Tampines.

"(Employers) must be able to get staff and also retain them. The smaller the organisation, the more family-like you have to be. The culture has to be good," he said.

E-Waves Fishbyte sales executive Ron Tan, 25, said he likes the the way Madam Lai cooks or buys meals for staff and lets them use the company boat to organise fishing trips with colleagues, family and friends. "They're not formal policies but she treats us like family," he said, explaining why he has stayed for a year.

For job-seeker Susan Foo, 26, the longer hours and lower pay did not deter her from taking up a sales job at Bright House after a recent job fair.

"I like to meet customers and the boss said I can learn a lot," she said.

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