Monday 9 March 2015

Money worries remain for older women

Their wages are up, but they are living longer and still earn much less than men
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

Older women continue to dominate in lower-income jobs, according to recently released figures from the Ministry of Manpower.

More than seven in 10 of nearly 100,000 women aged 60 and above who worked last year earned less than $2,000 per month, the Labour Force Survey showed.

And while the gender wage gap in Singapore is roughly the same as that in New York or London - with women earning nearly 88 per cent of the median pay of men overall - the difference widens with age.

Being lesser educated, women over 60 who worked full-time earned a median income of $1,623 last year, well below the $3,500 monthly wage for all women and the $2,158 for older men.

Their real incomes however have risen faster than that of older men. Five years earlier, older women earned a median income of just $1,040.

"This shows that despite recent improvements in wages, too many older women here are still earning too little," pointed out gender consultant Theresa Devasahayam who has just completed a 180-page report on the challenges of older women. It was commissioned by the International Longevity Centre Singapore, a part of the Tsao Foundation.

Older women were most likely still working or returning to work mainly because they needed the money. "They may not have saved enough and so may still need to work," she said.

Buoyed possibly by a tight labour market, the number of women aged 60 and above who work as cleaners rose by 70 per cent to 34,100 last year, from 19,800 just five years earlier.

Tsao Foundation chairman Mary Ann Tsao acknowledged that younger women are better placed to prepare financially for old age. But older ones are still a concern. "It's really not enough to say the wage or savings gap has narrowed, as women actually need to have more resources than men as they live longer," said Dr Tsao.

Women also progressively outnumber men as they age. By their 80s, there are twice as many women as men. They are also more likely than men to be single, widowed or divorced.

Experts say women's lower earnings directly and adversely affect their retirement adequacy, since Singapore operates an earnings-based pension system.

As of December 2013, women over 60 had an average of around $40,000 in their CPF accounts compared to nearly $60,000 for men the same age.

There has of course been a push by the Government in recent years to shore up wages, employment rates and retirement savings of older workers through a slew of schemes.

These include Workfare (an income supplement for low-wage workers), higher CPF contribution rates for older workers, and incentives for companies that hire them.

Wages too have risen, as has welfare. The recently announced Silver Support Scheme will help boost the income of needy older citizens further, even if they don't work.

But there are four groups of older women who face a vulnerable financial future, say experts The Sunday Times spoke to. They include those who are single, housewives, part-time workers, and caregivers who quit work to look after loved ones in fast-ageing Singapore.

Although more women than ever are working, there are still more than half a million aged 25 and above who do not work, and most cite housework, childcare or caregiving as the main reason.

Last weekend, the women's wing of the People's Action Party called on husbands and adult working children to make regular voluntary top-ups to the CPF accounts of stay-at-home mothers. Similar calls were made by Aware and the Tsao Foundation a decade ago.

Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Christopher Gee, who studies ageing and retirement adequacy issues, has suggested a scheme where a working spouse can make regular, automatic contributions to the CPF accounts of non-working spouses.

"This would help in the more rapid accumulation of CPF savings, given the additional interest on balances below $60,000 in the CPF," he said.

Another way to improve the retirement adequacy of older widowed women with meagre CPF savings is to add a spousal survivorship benefit to CPF Life, says Mr Gee, referring to the national annuity scheme that allows retirees to receive a monthly income for life.

This way, a widow can continue receiving payouts to support her retirement even after her husband dies. "Payouts can be calculated on the basis of expected longevity of the surviving spouse, which in most cases will be assumed to be the woman," he said.

Women who stop working to care for sick family members are another concern. Many of them are single and compromise their own financial security. The stress of looking after a loved one can also take a toll on their health. "We must count the opportunity cost to these women, " said Dr Tsao.

She said that the Government could consider giving "caregiver credits" to help reduce fees when caregivers need to pay for their own care services in future.

Workplaces should expand flexiwork and job-sharing schemes to help women tend to their caregiving duties even as they work.

Part-time workers who drift in and out of the workforce are another group to watch out for, pointed out Ms Teo Mee Hong, executive director of Wings, a voluntary organisation that helps women age well. She has spoken to low-wage women who work part-time because there are not enough full-time jobs available for them.

Of late, she has noticed another phenomenon. In the tight labour market, some women say they can earn more on an hourly basis doing two or more part-time jobs than from a full-time job.

But some may work for employers who do not pay enough CPF, Ms Teo said, adding: "In such cases, and in the long run, it's the workers who would lose out."

Employers must also play their part in ensuring older workers who stay on or return to the workforce earn a decent wage. Those who do not have degrees but have risen through the ranks to managerial positions are a concern, said human resource consultant Helen Lim, who helps older workers stay employed. "Right now there are many who don't get jobs even though they're willing to take pay cuts," she said.

Economist Linda Lim says raising wages is one key way to boost productivity in lower-skilled jobs.

"This will incentivise employers to devise more efficient processes and employ fewer workers but at higher wages," said Prof Lim, a Singaporean who teaches business strategy at the University of Michigan in the United States.

It will also motivate workers better and reduce labour turnover - a major cause of low productivity.

"This is what companies like Wal-Mart are doing in the US - raising wages well above minimum wage," she said.

Housewives urged to seek CPF top-up
Tell your husband about 6% interest and get him to top up account, MP tells them
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

In the 150-strong crowd at a public forum held in Nee Soon yesterday to discuss this year's Budget, one woman stood out.

She was the lone housewife, among about 30 in the audience, who raised her hand when Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah did a poll of non-working women whose husbands topped up their Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts.

Concerned by the low CPF balances of these women, Ms Lee encouraged the other housewives to ask for CPF top-ups from their husbands, so as to make full use of the higher interest rates announced in the Budget statement last month.

"Tonight you can go back, discuss with your husband and tell him that for the first $30,000 in your CPF account, you will get 6 per cent interest. Discuss that maybe it's better to put money into your CPF account," said Ms Lee.

She noted that banks' interest rates are less than 1 per cent.

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, also a Nee Soon GRC MP, echoed the call to add to the CPF accounts of non-working family members. "If you don't have enough, at least the family can contribute. The Government is giving you 6 per cent," he told reporters.

The argument seemed to convince participants at yesterday's forum, organised by the grassroots Women's Executive Committees in Nee Soon GRC and held at Nee Soon South Community Club to mark International Women's Day.

Said Ms Jeya Gowrie, 48: "I think husbands should put the money in (our CPF). We make all these sacrifices for our families."

She stopped working as a full-time lawyer 10 years ago to care for her three children, now aged between 11 and 17, and has found it hard to get even part-time jobs since. She has $30,000 in her CPF account from four years of full-time work, but will talk to her husband about top-ups, she said.

Ms Lee later told reporters that after the talk, some women approached her to ask how their husbands can top up their accounts.

"I'm sure some of them will top up if they know they'll get a 6 per cent interest rate," she said.

Another question aired at the forum was by administrative assistant Tan Yu Na, 30, who wanted to know what benefits stay-at-home mothers received from the Budget.

In response, Mr Shanmugam brought up the $500 in SkillsFuture Credits each Singaporean aged 25 and above will get to pay for courses. SkillsFuture has also been lauded by women MPs, who see the scheme as helping women return to the workforce after leaving to take care of their families.

In a separate statement yesterday, the People's Action Party Women's Wing said it will commit resources to publicise SkillsFuture.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, who chairs the group, said the scheme "will empower women and enable them to realise their potential in the multiple roles that they play in the family and the society".

She has to care for hubby full-time
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

Like many women of her generation, Madam Lee Hong Boy, 64, raised two daughters while working in a succession of packing and cleaning jobs in factories, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.

She stopped working at 55 to look after her grand-daughter.

Her husband Wong Fee, 78, worked in his family's small welding business for about $700 a month until March last year, when he collapsed at work. He has had two operations and needs full-time care now, so his wife cannot work.

When The Sunday Times visited their two-room rental flat last week, the couple were tucking into a simple meal of porridge, soy sauce and fish balls. A charity provides free meals near their block, but Madam Lee prefers to cook herself.

According to the latest labour force data, there are nearly 42,000 women who say they cannot work mainly because they need to look after old and sick loved ones. Another 137,000 say they are too old or sick to work themselves.

The couple get monthly payouts from the Central Provident Fund and Madam Lee has some savings, but without her husband's income, she is reliant on aid from charities and the $300 she receives from her daughter every month.

"I don't want to use up my savings yet, since we don't even own a flat," said Madam Lee. She knows she can apply to the state for more aid - and is eagerly awaiting the Silver Support bonus.

Above all, she worries about her husband. "He is so thin now," she said. "I try not to think about the future."

Years of toil, but little in CPF
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

Despite having worked for more than 40 years, housewife Ng Siew Huay, 62, has only around $12,500 in the retirement account of her Central Provident Fund.

Her 64-year-old husband works in a low-paying job in the construction industry.

Born in a very different Singapore, Madam Ng speaks only Hokkien. She says she did not go to school, staying home instead to help her mother look after five younger brothers.

In her 20s, she got a job packing earphones in an electronics factory in Ang Mo Kio. It paid her $500, including CPF contributions - a good wage for the 1970s. But the factory folded in the early 1980s and moved to Malaysia.

For the next 10 years, she worked as a daily-rated factory worker packing preserved fruit.

The pay - $1 for every 100 packets packed - was pitiful. She earned a maximum of $10 a day and got no CPF. She resigned in the mid-1990s and has drifted in and out of the workforce as a part-time cleaner since then.

More than 33,000 women who are in their 60s or older work part-time. Some do so by choice; others because they cannot find full-time jobs.

Madam Ng's part-time jobs have brought in between $350 and $650 a month.

But her retirement savings are compromised as some past employers preferred to pay her cash instead of putting money in her CPF account.

And she is already feeling the pinch of medical costs.

She says that long years of physical labour have hurt her back. Her husband won't pay for her physiotherapy sessions and she stopped going recently when she could not pay for them herself.

Good cv, but no one is hiring
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

Low-income older women may not be the only ones facing an uncertain financial future.

Those who used to earn well above the median wage, like Ms Madeleine Neo, 52, have their own worries too.

The single woman did not go to university but rose through the ranks to earn $7,500 a month in her last job as an office manager.

But having grown tired of the 41/2-hour daily commute from her Bedok home to Pulau Bukom and back, she quit in January last year.

She has since sent out nearly 100 job applications, even for jobs that pay half of what she earned before, only to be told she is "over qualified".

She still owes the Housing Board about $100,000 for her five-room flat and is trying not to downgrade as she shares it with three less-educated older sisters who work in low-paying, part-time jobs.

Although her last-drawn pay was relatively high, she does not have much savings as she has been looking after her parents and siblings for most of her working life. Most of her CPF savings went towards the flat, she says.

She feels employers' attitudes have not changed despite many paying lip service to hiring older workers.

"Sometimes I get calls asking my age as I have not put it in my CV," she says. "And when I say how old I am, I just never hear from them again."

She says she has experience, a proven track record and a lot to contribute to the workforce.

"Fifty-two is not old at all in a country where women live so long. I just need someone to give me a chance," she said.

Cleaner now works fewer hours for the same pay
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 8 Mar 2015

Five years ago, office cleaner Maimun Omar, 58, worked 12 hours a day in two jobs - at Changi and HarbourFront - to earn $1,400 every month. These days the divorced mother of three grown-up children gets the same pay at a different company working a regular eight-hour shift near her Bukit Merah home.

The tightening of the foreign worker tap and the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which helps low-wage workers get higher pay through training and productivity gains, has helped workers like Madam Maimun. The PWM stipulates a basic minimum wage of $1,000 for local cleaners.

But while she is earning more than ever before, things are more expensive too, she said. "I hope as as costs rise, our pay rises too - or we won't save enough."

NTUC holds job fair for older women to celebrate Women's Day
The job fair, held in conjunction with International Women's Day, also honoured 64 women for their contributions at work.
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Mar 2015

A massive job fair, organised by NTUC Women's Development Secretariat, was held on Sunday (Mar 8) specifically targeted at older women.

Involving 17 employers, the fair had 2,800 vacancies on offer in various sectors such as F&B, healthcare and retail, most of which offered "women-friendly" perks like flexible working hours.

The job fair is part of the labour movement's International Women's Day celebrations at Downtown East, where 64 women were also honoured for their contributions at work. The women were nominated by their employers, which are mostly unionised companies.

The celebrations were attended by around 2,000 union members and their families.

The oldest honoured was 83-year-old Magdelein Joseph, who has worked as a tea lady at ST Aerospace Systems for 41 years. Auntie Maggie, as she is affectionately known by her colleagues, is still with the company, but on a contract basis.

The labour movement said it is important to provide more job opportunities to women who want to return to work. This is so that they can be financially independent and plan for their golden years.

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