Perhaps ‘Lowly Skilled’ Workers are too lowly paid?

Perhaps ‘Lowly Skilled’ Workers are too lowly paid?

By Terry Xu

A news article writes – “Singapore is too fixated on producing professional, managerial, executive and technician (PMET) jobs for Singaporeans, and this mindset creates a problem”, said economics professor Linda Lim at a population-policy forum.

I would like to ask everyone to think back to the days of schooling where the teacher discusses with their class on the professions available for students to take up. Engineers, Doctors, Manager, Lawyers, Dentists, Scientists, Teachers are some are the professions which I remember having to fill up the blanks, but I do not recall fishmonger, florist, waitress, chef, to say a few as part of the local syllabus. The bulk of the education syllabus would probably give an impression that the students are gearing to become managers, bankers or maybe even a scientist. Perhaps there is a mentality cultivated since young to shun lowly jobs such as bakers and craftsman and aiming for highly rewarding jobs such as Engineers and Accountants.

Does Singapore advocate respect for different occupations in schools regardless of the pay and status?

One interesting practice we could adopt from American schools is the career day where children bring their parents in to talk about their jobs. Children could learn from the exposure to respect the different occupations from the exposure and not to link pride to the salary of the job but the sense of professionalism in it. (Although the harsh reality of life in Singapore would teach them else wise)

In our society, it seems that occupations such as food hawker, butcher, carpenter, service technicians are reserved for those who have ‘failed’ the national education system. Is it wrong to say that people has to go for these occupations after they find themselves not being able to progress along the official education syllabus in Singapore? In fact, is there any proper route of advancement for people who aspire to work in these industries? Or is there any proper accreditation for professionals in such industries?

In Ministry of Manpower’s report on wages in 2011, a baker earns on average S$1,900 while a carpenter earns about S$1,600. Given the stagnant if not declining salary of the ‘low skilled’ workers and the prevalent social perception of the occupations. In view of such reality in Singapore, which parent would offer advice to their kids to take up such occupations? And who would aspire to take up an occupation that would be belittled by the rest?

The government needs to really step in to ensure that salaries of the ‘low skilled’ workers are reasonably paid for. Companies, which employ low skilled workers, would definitely complain on this but before such complains are accepted as they are. There should be a serious look at the basis of complain. Are such companies meeting difficulties in paying their staffs or they are more concerned about the profits? Companies that are unable to provide for reasonable salary should be allowed to give up its market share to those companies with new business models, which could do so.

In Singapore, we see a lot of instances of out-sourcing where the ‘low-skilled’ workers bear most of the tedious work assigned but gain tiny share of the profit after multi level cuts. Whereas In many countries, such as Australia, certain professions such as plumbing and construction are often run as a sole proprietor where all the profits go to the owner who is most cases, as the worker him/herself along with a few other staff.

And bear in mind that such workers are considered as professionals in Australia instead of the low-skilled workers that we choose to tag them to, plausibly to justify the low salary that they draw. Such as the ‘low skilled’ health care practitioners ‘wrongly’ labelled in the footnote of the Population White Paper.

Apart from low pay, the lack of unions representing rights of the professions can be seen as one of the reason for their predicament. Basic welfare for workers such as retail sales and service staff especially nurses are appalling in retrospective of the long work hours and leave that they receive since they have to work during public holidays and weekends as well.  In the early days of Singapore, there had been a strong labour  movement filled with unions of all sorts of trade fighting for the rights of workers , (ie. street hawkers, production operators and etc) till the clampdown of union leaders during the arrests of the 1960s.

The unions have now been consolidated into a union known as National Trade Union Committee (NTUC) where there has been limited effect of what the Tripartite Guidelines has made towards the well being of such workers in their work place in recent years.

To encourage more locals in taking up the ‘low skilled’ jobs, the government could look at a few ways. One would be looking at how to implement minimum wage scale based on the different industries or look into providing help to low-skilled workers of certain industries to run their own business and services. Ultimately there must be measures to help such workers to reach higher income for their families and to improve the image of such professions so that people would be proud to take up.

The government should also take serious look at the overgrown outsourcing trend in Singapore, a major reason for the salary crunch on low skilled workers apart from the use of foreign workers.

If living expenses is going to keep rising and salary remains to be stagnant for certain industries especially for the ‘low skilled’ jobs. It will continue to be an escalating problem that such occupations would not be filled by the locals. Giving yet another justification for Singapore to bring in more foreigners.