Monday, 15 June 2020

Singaporeans: Essential workers deserve higher pay

8 in 10 Singaporeans willing to pay more for essential services but few want to do the jobs themselves: Survey
Survey shows they are ready to pay up to 10% or 20% more if extra money goes to workers
By Janice Tai, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2020

Around eight in 10 Singaporeans are willing to pay more for essential services such as cleaning or security if the extra amount goes to the workers themselves.

They would pay up to 10 per cent or 20 per cent more for such services. This could include service and conservancy charges (S&CC) for Housing Board flat dwellers or maintenance fees for private property owners.

S&CC typically range from $20 to $90 a month for Singaporeans, so a 20 per cent hike could work out to as much as $18 more a month.

The findings, from a survey commissioned by The Sunday Times, come as the coronavirus pandemic has turned the spotlight on the important role of essential workers, and the discrepancy between their value to society and what they earn.

The online survey of some 1,000 respondents aged 16 and above was carried out by Milieu Insight, a Singapore-based consumer research firm. It was done from June 5 to 8 with a nationally representative sampling across age, gender and income groups to capture how people's perceptions of essential workers have changed, if at all, against the backdrop of COVID-19, and whether they would be willing to pay these workers more.

The strong support for higher wages is likely to have been influenced by the outbreak, with 73 per cent of respondents saying they "respect essential workers more now" when asked to what extent the pandemic has affected their views.

Asked who they considered to be essential workers, respondents listed doctors, cleaners, garbage collectors, hawkers and deliverymen.

"Unfortunately, in many societies, the more useful the work is, the less they pay you," labour MP Zainal Sapari, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, noted in Parliament earlier this month.

The cleaning workforce is around 62,000-strong and the security workforce, some 48,000. These are some of the lowest paid occupations among a range of essential work.

Moves have been made in recent years to increase salaries for workers in these jobs. Under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which mandates a wage floor for workers in some industries, wages increased from last year for security officers and from 2017 for cleaners. The monthly basic wage of a security officer is now $1,250 and that of a general cleaner is at least $1,200.

But basic wages for these essential workers still hover in the bottom fifth percentile based on gross monthly wages of resident workers, said Mr Sapari. For instance, the median monthly basic wage of a general office clerk in 2018 was $2,225.


Respondents were also asked what they think companies and the Government should do to increase the wages of essential workers.

Companies should pay workers according to the number of tasks completed instead of by headcount, said 60 per cent of respondents. The more they complete, the more they can be paid.

This was followed by those who suggested hiring more Singaporeans instead of foreigners (47 per cent), and training workers to do more work within the same period to justify a higher pay (46 per cent). About 5 per cent thought companies need not do anything. Respondents could select multiple options.

Indeed, there has been a push in the last few years to move from headcount-based cleaning contracts to outcome-based contracts, said Mr Tony Chooi, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS).

Singapore National Employers Federation executive director Sim Gim Guan said this would incentivise service providers to improve manpower efficiency and the productivity gained could be shared with the workers.

But sociologist Chua Beng Huat said the assumption that a simple wage rise should be accompanied by higher productivity misses the point of paying a fair wage to the lowest-paid workers.

Said the Yale-NUS College academic: "It assumes that the workers are not already working to their capacity and suggests a greater rate of exploitation of labour."

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, who in Parliament recently urged society to rethink and better value essential, manual work, agreed that tying wages to productivity is a "false equivalence".

He cited examples of how prices for professional services, such as fees for doctors, lawyers and teachers, have risen over time although their productivity has not risen proportionately. This is because people are willing to pay for other aspects of the service, such as quality, rather than the raw output per man-hour, he said.

"We must be prepared to value labour, even if productivity improvements are limited in the traditional sense by the nature of the job," he added.


In that vein, respondents said there should be higher Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) payouts for these workers - their top choice (59 per cent) when asked what the Government should do.

This was followed by collecting less in foreign worker levies and mandating companies to pass the savings to workers (56 per cent), and penalising companies that award contracts based solely on price so as to push them to consider performance and quality instead (50 per cent).

Mr Sapari said giving a higher WIS payout for essential service workers may narrow the income gap in the short term and send a signal to encourage more workers to join these industries, but it may not be sustainable in the long run.

The best approach to improve the wages of essential workers, he said, is through the PWM, where compliance is mandatory.

"Without regulations or licensing to ensure across-the-board adherence, progressive employers will find little incentive to pay better wages and benefits as they will be priced out by their competitors who may (lower) tender prices to win contracts," said Mr Sapari, acknowledging that further changes to the PWM for essential services would require the support of unions, employers and the Government.


At the individual level, Singaporeans such as Ms Juliana Chia, 47, said they are happy to pay more.

Ms Chia, a personal assistant, is willing to give 10 per cent more on top of her condominium's current monthly maintenance fee of $400 if the money goes to the cleaners and security guards.

"I sympathise with the cleaners because there is so much more garbage to clear now that all of us are cooking more and working from home," she said.

But she asked how residents can ensure the extra money really goes to them.

Mr Chan Kok Hong, managing director of Savills Property Management, which helps to oversee the maintenance of various condominiums, said that "increasing the contract price is not the solution".

"The management councils of the condominiums face pressure every year at their annual general meeting. Any suggestion of increases in the maintenance contributions gets thrashed," he said.

Instead, he suggests setting up collection boxes so that residents can give supermarket or food vouchers to the workers.

Another way out, said Mr Chooi of Emas, is for those who wish to pay more to contribute to a fund. "The money could go into to a government-managed fund and the amount could be distributed to all essential workers periodically."

Essential workers important but only 17% polled want to do the job
By Janice Tai, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2020

Doctor, nurse, cleaner, garbage collector, hawker - these are the jobs that Singaporeans consider most essential in today's society.

Yet, many shun most such work themselves, with 57 per cent of respondents in a survey saying they do not want to be garbage collectors, and 42 per cent rejecting cleaning jobs.

Conversely, occupations such as business consultant and human resource manager were ranked among the five most "non-essential" jobs, but were also among the top jobs people want to do.

"A big factor in the calculus (of how people choose jobs)... is the 'social prestige' attached to the job - essential or otherwise," said National University of Singapore sociologist Vincent Chua.

Mr Willie Cheng, who sits on several commercial and non-profit boards, said the findings reflect Singapore's increasingly class-conscious society.

"Ordinary manual labour is generally frowned upon in our knowledge society. It also does not help in shaping perceptions that many of these jobs are being performed by migrant workers whose availability has helped depress wages further," said Mr Cheng, a former managing partner at Accenture, a multinational company that provides management consulting services.

But perceptions have improved, according to the survey of 1,000 people commissioned by The Sunday Times and conducted by consumer research firm Milieu Insight.

Two in three respondents agreed that their perceptions of essential workers in Singapore have changed since the COVID-19 outbreak started, with almost all saying their impressions have either "improved a lot" or "improved a little".

However, only 17 per cent of those polled said they are more interested in working as essential workers now. Similarly, only 17 per cent of them are more open to having their children take up jobs as essential workers now.

Even if salaries were tripled, half would still say no to working as a construction worker, cleaner or security guard.

Said Mr Cheng: "The survey results show that the desirability of a job is not always correlated to the monetary compensation. One's salary can create dissatisfaction if not sufficient, but by itself is not motivating. Motivators are matters like achievement, recognition, the nature of the work and growth."

Nonetheless, respondents said that salary is very important, which suggested that for many, salary and the nature of a job go hand in hand.

About 22 per cent of respondents picked salary as the most important attribute of a job, behind only "job that matches my interest", the top attribute for 37 per cent of respondents.

Economist Walter Theseira said it may be hard to separate interest from salary, as some people are convinced they are interested in a job when what has actually interested them could be the high salary potential or the lifestyle associated with the job.

"As an interviewer for student admissions, I never cease to be amazed by the number of students who sincerely tell me they have always found, say, accounting interesting.

"I assume that if garbage collection paid as well and had great career prospects, and admission to a training programme was selective, I would have prospective trainees tell me the same thing," said the Singapore University of Social Sciences academic.

Dispelling misconceptions is key, said Security Association Singapore president Raj Joshua Thomas.

"We need to move away from the idea that security officers are general workers that can be called upon to help with errands. They are now often seen as arms and legs for general assistance to the managing agent or facilities manager."

Instead, security officers are specialised personnel who spend a significant amount of time in training, he said.

The survey also found that age plays a part in determining how some jobs are viewed.

The younger generation - those aged 16 to 24, for instance - are more likely than the older generation aged 55 and above to view corporate lawyer, human resource manager and public relations specialist jobs as being more essential.

Younger people are also less likely than older people aged 45 and above to consider cleaning and garbage collection jobs as essential.

Mr Delane Lim, 34, who does human resource consulting as the managing partner of Polygon Asia Consulting Enterprise, puts this down to different life experiences.

He thinks that younger Singaporeans may not think manual work is essential partly because they do not interact with or notice the "invisible workers" doing those jobs.

"The older Merdeka or Pioneer generations, however, have contributed greatly to Singapore during a time of struggle, hardship and sacrifice and therefore are more aware of the value of certain manual jobs."

Young people's perceptions could change if they, like Mr Ezio Ng, 18, who dropped out of polytechnic, were to find themselves on a different path.

Four months ago, Mr Ng chose to take up a cleaning job in an environmental hygiene company instead of a logistics role at a bookstore.

"People may look down on cleaners, but I wanted to try something different and experience what their daily life is like," said Mr Ng, whose job entails spraying disinfectant solution at various locations. He earns about $1,900 a month.

Also, any job can be a stepping stone, he said. "I do worry about whether the pay is enough for me to support a family, but I believe that in every job, there are skills I can learn that will be useful for future career progression."

Essential workers: You do it only if you have no other choice, says veteran cleaner
By Tan Tam Mei, The Sunday Times, 14 Jun 2020

If he had more options, Mr Tan Cheng Piew would not do the job he has had for almost a decade.

"It's tiring and can be dirty. And for those with families, it usually does not pay enough to support a household with children," said the 64-year-old cleaner, who, thankfully, does not need to support his three sons in their 30s and 40s.

Mr Tan, who left school after Primary 6, cleans offices in Jalan Buroh.

"Most Singaporeans do not want to work a cleaner's job, you do it only if you have no other choice," he said.

But it is not the worst job for him, he pointed out. "People sometimes ask me why I didn't consider becoming a driver or doing other kinds of jobs, but this is all right for me. In fact, it's less tiring than working in construction," said Mr Tan, who used to be a contractor but stopped when business slowed down.

The COVID-19 outbreak in recent months has highlighted the plight of essential workers, many of whom continue to go to work often for a low salary, while the rest of Singapore is encouraged to stay at home to work.

Mr Tan says he now makes more money than when he started out 10 years ago. He earns about $1,500 a month, $300 more than the basic pay he began with.

It is also higher than the minimum salary of $1,200 mandated by the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for general cleaners like him.

His current salary works out to a real wage increase of about 6.2 per cent over 10 years, taking inflation into account.

This is an annual real wage increase of 0.6 per cent a year, just barely beating inflation, said Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin.

The implementation of the PWM has seen salaries of those in the cleaning industry rise, since it was implemented in 2018.

Minimum salaries are expected to increase further next month to $1,236 for the lowest rung of general and indoor cleaners and at least $1,854 for supervisory roles.

The PWM has been applied to the cleaning, security and landscaping sectors.

But Mr Tan does not grumble about his pay. He says it is enough for him and his wife, who does not work, to get by.

Like Mr Tan, Mr Pang Tay, 76, says most Singaporeans would not choose to clean toilets and offices for a living, and the only ones would be seniors like himself.

"If you have studied and got a certificate, you wouldn't want to do such a job. You would want to work in an office," said Mr Pang, who retired as a lorry driver.

He earns a little over $1,300, up from $1,200 when he first started five years ago.

Both men said they had no feelings about the recent outpouring of gratitude to workers like themselves.

Mr Tan said he understood why people might be grateful someone was doing a job like his.

"That's not weird," said Mr Tan with a laugh, adding that he does not dwell too much on people's perceptions of his job.

"I'll do it as long as I'm able to, as it suits an old person like me."

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