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What are Singaporean workers sacrificing for?

Leong Sze Hian

The Prime Minister said in his National Day Rally speech, that "Singaporeans can look forward to higher wages and good bonuses" and that “[lots] of jobs [have been] created [and] unemployment has gone down.”

With this being akin to an almost annual rhetoric over the years, exhorting Singaporeans to accept more foreigners in order to achieve an expected GDP growth of 13 to 15 per cent, which is expected to be the highest in the world this year, along with crowded trains, higher hdb prices, etc, the question Singaporeans are asking is:  what is the reward for Singaporeans in accepting all these?

Wages

Singapore workers had only a 1.4 per cent per annum real wage increase from 2001 to 2009, according to the Ministry of Manpower's Labour Market Q1 2010 report. After the last two years of negative real wage growth, and current inflation running at 3.1 per cent in July, workers may end up with a consecutive third year of negative wage increase.

Minimum wage

Many elderly cleaners and road sweepers earn only about $650 a month, which works out to an hourly wage of only about S$3.50.

South Korea has a minimum wage policy which has been reviewed annually since 1998. The current minimum wage is 4,110 Won (S$4.70) per hour.

Malaysia is contemplating a minimum wage, with the Malaysian Human Resources Minister's recent statement that it would be tabled at the cabinet in October. Singapore has no plans to have one.

In this connection, even the Philippines Goverment has introduced a minimum wage of US$400 (S$538) and 4 days off a month, starting August 2010, for Filipino domestic maids working in Singapore. This has caused a quandary as employers have been used to paying not more than S$400. Hong Kong also passed a minimum wage law on 30 August with a minimum wage that is expected to be around HK$28 per hour (S$4.85).

Longest working hours in the world

Acoording to Profesor van Reenen, a widely-quoted economist in the British press, who recently won the prestigious Yrjö Jahnsson Award - the European equivalent to the John Bates Clark Medal in the United States - which is given to the best economist in Europe under the age of 45 who has made a significant contribution to economics; productivity should not be overly focused on GDP per worker or per hour.

In this respect, Singapore workers have one of the longest work hours per week in the world, more than South Korea which used to have the longest work hours in the world. In 2008, Singaporeans put in 45.9 hours a week, which was more than South Koreans.

Jobs

If the labour market is bursting at the seams, why is it that on a seasonally adjusted basis, the resident unemployment rate in June at 3.3 per cent was higher than  March's 3.2 per cent, and the number of resident unemployed increased from 66,200 to 68,100? Even the overall unemployment rate rose from 2.2 in March to 2.3 per cent in June.

According to the article “Service sector powers S'pore's job growth” (ST, Jul 31), there were an estimated 87,800 residents without jobs in June.

The number of long-term unemployed – those who have been hunting for jobs for at least 25 weeks also increased slightly between December and March. Close to half of all resident job seekers were above 40 years old.

End-game?

So, what really is all this record economic growth for? Who is benefiting from it? In recent times, the government has been exhorting Singaporeans to increase productivity, be cheaper, better, faster, to reskill, upskill, multi-skill. And the Prime Minister urged Singaporeans to “keep learning and upgrading.”

While NTUC Chief Lim Swee Say said “workers can look forward to higher wage increments this year”, the Prime Minister in his Rally Speech cautioned Singaporeans to “please be careful with wage expectations”.

Perhaps the questions which Singaporeans have, and which the Prime Minister should have addressed more extensively and thoroughly in his speech, are:

  1. What is the benefit to the average ordinary Singaporean in continuing to accept the huge influx of foreigners and the adverse consequences which come with it?
  2. What exactly in terms of wages can Singaporeans, especially those in the lower brackets, expect – or should they continue to accept depression of their wages?
  3. What are the government’s plans to address the widening income-gap?

Finally, PM Lee said in July this year that “[management and staff] cannot simply go strictly by what is explicitly spelt out in employment contracts.” This statement is of great concern to workers, coming as it did from the Prime Minister himself. Does this mean that employment contracts are not worth the paper they are written on?

Record economic growth and exhortations to improve oneself are all well and good but what are these leading to in real terms for the average citizen?

Where, really, are the protection, assurance and benefits to the average worker, besides being constantly urged to improve themselves in order to be employable?

Are workers mere cogs in the wheel?

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With contribution from Andrew Loh.

Picture from Straits Times.