Think Centre's Labour Day Message

~ By Think Centre ~

This Labour Day, Think Centre salutes all workers and asks the tripartite movement for Fairer opportunities, Safer work and Minimum wage. 

Workers all over the world are celebrating the achievements of trade unions, and expressing their hopes for the future. More than ever before, in this globalised world, the situation of workers in one part of the world is linked to the challenges faced by workers in another. Today, the need for effective international solidarity – ASEAN Workers Solidarity – is more pressing.

Wide income gap between low income families and the rich

Singapore low-wage workers need a substantial increase in pay to provide for decent living. The income gap has widened in the last decade between families with a household lower income of $1200 – $3000 and the rich. The household income of $1200 is insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for even a small family; they suffer from poor quality of life. Without meaningful decent work oriented policies, the pressure to work long hours is rooted into low wages. Thus low wage Workers compete willingly to accept longer hours and overtime in order to maintain living standards.

A higher wage increase to ensure decent standard for this poorer households to improve their welfare and quality of life is needed. This can be achieved through sharing of the economic growth on an inclusive and equitable basis by raising wages for the lower income earners to cope with the high cost of living.  

Increasing wages will not chase jobs way

Employers cry against wage increase saying that it will reduce the economic growth and reduce employment but there is limited truth in that argument as wages are not a substantial factor impacting on employment. In fact, employers addicted to cheap, easily exploitable labour – foreign workers who are employed under lower and discriminative terms of employment – are refusing to provide fair terms of employment to the workers as well as decent living wages for both local and foreign workers. It should be recalled that no economic or financial crisis over the past decade had been caused by minimum wage standards  instead, it was the excesses of a largely unregulated global financial sector that brought about much untold suffering to millions of families all over the world. 

Employers also argue that wage increase is not possible due to lower productivity of workers. However, the facts show that in the last decade, growth in labour productivity outpaced the increase in wages. The reality is that workers' share of the wages had been suppressed for a long time.

Singapore is plugged into the global economy; it cannot avoid nor run away from addressing this issue without the risk of exacerbating social tensions. There are many external factors like the financial crisis, but among them the increase in wages is not one of the key factors, impacting on economic growth and employment. Even though there currently are some measures, painted as targeted social safety net, to deal with insecure employment and low wages, there must be a fundamental re-think towards implementing a minimum wage in Singapore  many proponents had suggested it to be implemented for workers currently receiving the lowest income share of the economy.  

Higher inflation

The recent increase of inflation hit 5.2% eroding any increase in wages. The real value of the household incomes has fallen as the increase in wages do not keep in pace with inflation. In fact, over the decade the real values of  the wage have been eroded and have affected the purchasing capacity of those from the lower household income bracket of $1200 and lower as the prices of goods and services increase.

Singapore: is this decent work?

In 2005, there were about 1 million Singaporeans with GCE 'O' levels or lower, ageing, and prone to unemployment. They do not have fair and equal opportunity in terms of employment. Even if they work harder and long hours for low pay, their jobs were not secure. They live in fear of being jobless any moment at the mercy of their employers.

In 2007, there were an estimated 300,000 "vulnerable poor" who earned less than $1,200 a month on the threshold of poverty. About 120,000 or 12 per cent of the working population were doing odd-jobs, contract work, and part-time jobs that do not make contribution to the CPF.

Women are generally paid less for the same job and those with disabilities are mostly shunned. Older workers are often rejected at job interviews except for the lowest paying jobs as cleaners. When economic growth fell, workers' Central Provident Fund (CPF) pay was cut. However, taxes have gone up in the form of GST. Without a minimum wage our aged and lower educated workers can neither compete fairly with the migrant workers nor gain a job with decent working conditions. Instead many workers, both local and foreign, are trapped in a vicious cycle of low wages, poor working and living conditions.

Voiceless, hidden, unseen and unheard in this wealthy island state 

Many workers have very little bargaining power and many still do not have access to union representation to deal with unreasonable employers. They dare not make reports to the Ministry of Manpower or the Central Provident Fund Board about their poor working conditions and non-contribution of CPF by errant employers. They suffer silently the consequences of depressed wages, unreasonable hours, poor bargaining power or risk becoming unemployed.

White-collar workers not spared

For the white-collar middle class new poor, it is insufficient for the government to provide skills upgrading without enforcing mindsets change in employers. More employers need to be educated on the value-add of older talents and incentivized to retain or re-hire such talents, in the current rigid, bottom-line-driven and performance-based job market.  

Office workers are often under pressure to arrive early, take less time for lunch and leave office late: falsely believing that this will ensure their job is secure. Longer work hours mean poor family and social life, bad health and lack of time for retraining, leading to weak family and social ties, dysfunctional families, neglected children and increased divorces. Workers feel lousy and unhappy as they hoped to be better parents or friends. Longer work hours also obstruct meaningful participation in civil society and politics.

Workers in many developed countries enjoy shorter workdays without reduction in pay. Shorter workdays also mean more jobs for workers. Unfortunately, today workers in Singapore are forced to work 12-hours shift, as the labour law permits. They have to work long hours to secure their jobs and increase their take home pay as there is no minimum wage. Let's also not forget the workers who are killed due to unsafe working conditions.

International Workers Day

May Day is an occasion to remind ourselves that it is the workers who create wealth and that this wealth belongs to all of us. May Day is an international event bringing together workers in solidarity. Unfortunately, Labour Day is likely to remain for many only a holiday with little or no thought given to its roots. There is no public education as to the origin of May Day – the celebration of the working peoples successful struggle for eight-hour work-day in 1880's. The struggled for the right to a decent and balanced life  “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours for what we will”. May Day is a celebration of workers' solidarity, aspiration and struggle for decent working conditions, better wages, job security and a better life for all workers and their family.


All workers have the right to fair and decent working and living conditions, regular payment of wages, and adequate access to the legal and judicial system for victims of discrimination, abuse, exploitation and violence. To protect the workers better with decent work standards, Think Centre urges the government to update deficient labour legislation by amending or removing outdated policies. Think Centre calls on the government to:

1. Amend the Employment Act, within the ILO decent work framework, with a 40-hour work week and decent living wage policy;

2. Institute better labour and anti-discrimination laws to protect against discrimination of older workers, gender, race and religion, disabilities and foreign domestic workers;

3. Change the rules so people who are self employed, work part-time or on contract are not left out in the cold as they reach retirement;

4. Respect the 1998 ILO Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work, especially on elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation;

5. Provide greater support for retrenched and unemployed workers through a national insurance scheme, as well as to provide a reasonable living with access to housing, health-care, re-training and other essentials to maintain life;

6. More space and mechanism for workers to express their views, concerns, report abuses, discrimination and exploitations, without fear is necessary as such laws, policies and practices restricting their expressions and associations must be removed;

7. To amend failed labour legislations and outdated, unjust, unfair policies and practices such as:

7.1 Stop: Piling up overtime work as requested by employees so companies need not pay double for work on rest days;

7.2 Stop: Deducting salaries of overtime work for food and housing for employees;

7.3 Stop: Giving employees working 11 hours (shift work) daily for 30 days and only 1 rest day per month for the first year in the service industry;

7.4 Stop: Forcing foreign workers refusing to sign their terms of contract to pay their own return tickets home and the company liquidated damages of around S$1,000 or more;

7.5 Amend: The 1973-policy which requires prior permission for work permit holders to marry locals. Instead those with relevant skills and who have worked in Singapore for 4 years should be free to marry locals;

Think Centre expresses our solidarity and support with all workers. Think Centre wishes all workers happy May First. 


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