Union leaders unhappy with Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim's remarks on minimum wage

Union leaders have accused WP MP Jamus Lim of belittling the work that they have put into tripartite negotiations over the years.
Union leaders have accused WP MP Jamus Lim of belittling the work that they have put into tripartite negotiations over the years.PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Remarks made in Parliament by Workers' Party MP Jamus Lim on 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 NTUC 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 on Thursday (Oct 15).

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 by helping to push up the wages of 80,000 cleaners, security guards and landscape workers by 30 per cent in recent years, without causing any job losses.

He added that taking a negotiated approach with stakeholders - including veteran union leaders who understand the importance of working with tripartite partners - 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, there are pushbacks," 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.

"It's worth reminding ourselves that there was a time when in the 16th century when people believed that the sun revolved around the earth. But that belief is not in fact the same as evidence," he said. He added that evidence from around the world shows that a minimum wage does not cause widespread unemployment, as long as it is not set too high.

Unionists' responses

On Saturday, Mr Nasordin B. Mohd Hashim, the former president of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu), in a letter to The Straits Times Forum page, 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."

Batu has also continued to lobby for improvements to the existing mandatory PWM sectors and push for the PWM to be expanded to other sectors, too, he added.

Mr Lim Teck Chuan, general secretary of the Metal Industries Workers' Union (Miwu), in a letter to Lianhe Zaobao on 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 careful 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. He added that with the PWM for the lift and escalator sector, entry-level lift technicians will earn minimally $1,850 per month.

"How would the proposed minimum wage of $1,300 even be meaningful? A minimum wage is too simplistic and does not reflect the realities of this sector," he said in his letter.

The Union of Security Employees on Thursday said it has been involved in several initiatives to help improve conditions for security officers, including improving training requirements and introducing the adoption of the PWM as a licensing condition for all security agencies.

"Nothing folksy about that for sure. And definitely not mere academic theories. We say what we do, and we do what we say. We don't just talk," wrote the union on Facebook.

The union's general secretary Raymond Chin also reiterated these points in a forum letter to ST that will be published on Monday (Oct 19).

Chiming in, the Supply Chain Employees' Union, in a separate Facebook post on Thursday, said it makes decisions in negotiation with firms based on ground concerns and data that has been studied with careful consideration. "It is not just merely our 'folksy' belief."

On Saturday, Prof Lim, in a Facebook post, said his argument about how "folksy wisdom" should not be relied upon as 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 on Monday (Oct 19), reiterated his respect for 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".