Monday 10 December 2012

Levelling the playing field for workers

By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2012

In the flurry of repercussions that followed Singapore's first illegal strike in a generation, one might have missed the root of the problem: how employers handle worker woes.

Given the absence of specific employment discrimination laws in Singapore, there seems to be no legal requirement for most companies to have formal grievance-handling processes.

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), which represents more than 2,600 employers here, issued an "advisory" on Wednesday urging employers to put in place procedures to resolve employee grievances "fairly, responsibly and expeditiously".

With practical tips on what to include in such processes, the document was timely. But it was not entirely new. Parts of it were lifted directly from the grievance-handling handbook of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, which has been around for at least two years.

Such handbooks and advisories, while well-meaning, can only suggest, rather than sanction. Employers may choose to ignore them.

When grievances pertain to violations of labour law - such as those concerning unpaid salaries, accident compensation and unfair dismissal - workers can also approach the Ministry of Manpower for help.

Apart from appealing to their companies - or the ministry - workers can approach their unions as well. Clear grievance-handling procedures are a key part of collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions. If these are breached by any company, the unions can turn to the Industrial Arbitration Court.

So what more can be done to protect workers' rights and ensure that legitimate grievances are given the gravity they deserve?

First, more workers must be unionised, and collective bargaining agreements must be extended to include contract workers too. Right now, these agreements usually exclude foreign work permit holders since they are generally contract workers.

Unions are meant to be the chief protectors of workers' rights. But fewer than a fifth of companies here are unionised. And while foreigners form a third of the workforce, they make up only 17 per cent of union members under the National Trades Union Congress. Most SMRT bus drivers were not unionised.

Second, there is an urgent need to study the effectiveness of existing grievance-handling processes and evaluate whether a basic code should be mandated. Companies could also be fined if they are shown to have broken the code.

As with wages, companies are given flexibility when it comes to forming and implementing their own grievance-handling codes. But a flexible code should not mean no code at all.

Third - and most importantly - employers and Singapore as a society must decide whether, in order to keep labour costs low, they should continue to pay pitifully low wages to some foreign workers.

Even after factoring in their lodging costs, China drivers at SMRT received a starting pay of around $1,350 a month.

As Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo observed earlier this year, bus drivers in Taiwan earn around NT$60,000 (S$2,540) a month - which is more than twice the starting pay of some fresh university graduates there.

Meanwhile, some Bangladeshi construction workers here earn as little as $16 to $18 a day - less than what some of their Australian counterparts earn in an hour. The minimum hourly wage in Australia after all is around A$16 (more than S$20).

And while equal pay for work of equal value is a labour right championed by the International Labour Organisation and a United Nations treaty ratified by at least 150 countries - excluding Singapore - low-wage workers here are known to be paid according to nationality, rather than based on the work they do. Singaporeans tend to be paid the most, generally followed by Malaysians and workers from China. Blue-collar workers from the Indian sub-continent, meanwhile, are known to populate the lowest rungs of the income scale. And this is all perfectly legal.

To justify the poor wages, many here have long clutched the moral fig leaf that foreign blue-collar workers spend most of what they earn here back in their home countries, where the cost of living is far lower. Besides, they come willingly. And the conventional wisdom is that if they don't like what they get, they can just go back.

But internationally, wages are decided based on the value of the work done, not on where the wages will be spent.

These foreign workers do come willingly, many to escape crippling poverty at home. But there are no publicly available records to tell us exactly how many return disillusioned after short stays, or how many are sent back for daring to complain to their bosses about poor pay or living conditions. Employers can cancel work permits unilaterally. This results in a foreign worker "churn" as trained and experienced workers return home and are replaced by cheaper, inexperienced new arrivals.

Migrant worker advocates say companies have compensated for higher government levies in recent years by paying fresh foreigners even less than what their compatriots used to get.

But cheap workers could come at a price - they might be of poor quality and hinder productivity.

The onus of paying workers equitably lies primarily with companies. But with an eye on labour costs, the Government could help too - for instance, by using a portion of the foreign worker levies to bump up the wages of these immigrant workers.

This could end up benefiting not just the foreigners, but blue-collar Singaporeans as well. It is no coincidence that most local low-wage workers toil in industries that depend on foreign migrants.

As of earlier this year, there were around 110,000 locals who earned less than $1,000 a month - excluding employers' CPF contributions - despite working full-time, though their numbers have dwindled in the past two years. Some, like cleaners, have quietly battled both rising costs of living and falling wages.

They know the Singaporean work ethos of collaboration and consensus rather than confrontation. They are unlikely to participate in illegal strikes.

But like their foreign colleagues, they too deserve a fairer deal - even if it means eroding corporate profits and requiring society to fork out more to pay those who quietly toil at essential jobs that most would never deign to do.

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