Tuesday 11 December 2012

'Limits' to attracting S'poreans to key services

Bosses keen but higher pay demands would drive up operating costs: DPM
By Poon Chian Hui, The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2012

SINGAPOREANS remain high on the wish lists of operators and providers of public transport and other essential services.

But while the Government would like to encourage as many Singaporeans as possible to join these sectors, there will always be a "limit", said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

This is because many Singaporeans have high aspirations and tend to go for higher-value jobs, he said yesterday.

They would expect to be paid more if operators want to attract them to the sector, and this would push up operating costs.

"We have to understand if we want to encourage more Singaporeans to come into essential services, there will be an impact on the operating cost," Mr Teo told reporters on the sidelines of a community visit in Pasir Ris.

The question of whether Singapore is over-reliant on foreign workers for its essential services, and who should bear the higher cost if the sector employs more locals, was thrust into the spotlight after 171 SMRT bus drivers from China went on strike on Nov 26.
Weighing in on the issue for the first time, Mr Teo said: "With regard to essential services, we would like to encourage as many Singaporeans as possible to join.

"That is one of the reasons why the bus services, for example, want to increase the pay, improve the conditions of bus drivers, so that more Singaporeans will want to come into the industry to drive buses."

But doing so would have an impact on the overall cost of running a system, he pointed out.

"Whether it's bus service, whether it's conservancy and maintenance, whether it's the water department, whatever - that has an impact on cost. Because manpower is a major component of cost."

His comments came after Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew suggested last Thursday that bus fares might go up in future to help improve the wages of bus drivers.

Mr Lui's suggestion drew strong reactions from commuters, who were adamant that the increase in operation costs should be borne by the two bus operators, SMRT and SBS Transit.

Yesterday, the Workers' Party and the Singapore Democratic Party - in separate statements - also rejected a possible fare hike. The opposition parties shared the opinion that the public transport operators are very profitable and that commuters should not be made to pay higher fares.

At the event yesterday, Mr Teo also reiterated that it is important that employees turn to the proper channels to air their grievances. Joining the union is one way, as it helps foreign workers understand the legal situation here and how they can resolve differences with their employers, he suggested.

He said: "Every country has laws about how essential services have to be maintained. And in that regard, Singapore is no different from any other country.

"And that particular aspect has to be enforced strictly. Otherwise, you will have disruption in society, which affects everybody, every commuter."

Raising fares to improve bus drivers' pay "should be last resort"
By Kimberly Spykerman, Channel NewsAsia, 10 Dec 2012

Industry observers say transport operators should look at alternative ways to raise the salaries of bus drivers.

Passing the buck to commuters should be the last resort, say observers.

They are commenting on Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew's suggestion that bus fares may go up in future to help improve the wages of bus drivers and that the public transport fare review, due next year, will consider this issue.

It's not easy getting Singaporeans to come on board as bus drivers.

So salary increments might make the job more appealing.

The question is: who will foot the bill?

Some industry observers said it should not be assumed that commuters will have to bear the additional costs as the two public transport operators remain profitable.

"So, from the passengers' side and the general public point of view, it may be difficult for them to swallow," said Professor Lee Der-Horng, an associate professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, National University of Singapore (NUS).

"...if they can first of all pursue their internal resources and try to improve their operations and see if they can further cut down operating costs, then perhaps, it wouldn't be necessary to approach the public and seek an increase in public transportation fare."

MP Gan Thiam Poh, who is also a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, said: "I feel strongly that the operators should try to explore or exhaust other means, such as other revenue, such as revenue coming from advertisements, rental or whatever...I think passing on (the costs) to consumer, that should be the last resort."

But even if salaries for bus drivers are raised, it might not be enough to get Singaporeans to bite.

Industry observers say that the long hours, rigorous work and the desire to have a job of higher value are among the main reasons Singaporeans shun the job.

Hence, a dependency on foreign manpower in this area might become unavoidable.

According to the chairman of the Public Transport Council, Gerard Ee, Singapore also lacks the body count and has an ageing workforce. That is why it must look to foreign manpower to fill the gaps in certain essential industries.

"Some jobs are just not popular, and as long as people have choices, they will give it a miss," said Mr Ee.

Industry observers also suggested that the operators look beyond Malaysia and China when hiring bus drivers, "so we will not be overly-reliant on a particular country or a particular region", said NUS' Professor Lee.

Suggestions to nationalise public transport have been raised but some observers said that this could result in inefficiencies and a drop in service levels.


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