Major problems can be traced back to NEA?

Major problems can be traced back to NEA?

By Leong Sze Hian


If you are one of the over 60,000 low-wage local cleaners or their family members, I’m sure you will be heartened to read the articles “Government to play bigger role in building fair and just society” and “MPs cheer push to narrow inequality” (Straits Times, Aug 9), on National Day.

Department of Cleanliness? 

I refer to the Budget debate 2012′s announcement that public cleaning will be under the new Department of Cleanliness (DPC) under the National Environment Agency (NEA).

“DPC will begin taking over the cleaning work of other government agencies in stages beginning from 1 Apr 2012. By end 2016, public cleaning work in Singapore will be subsumed under DPC’s integrated cleaning contracts.

  • The framework will have a 2-fold result of better cleaning standards which will help safeguard public health and improve the image of the industry as a professional workforce that is reliable, effective and respectable.”

Let’s examine what the DPC has done since 1 April 2012. I shall start from the most recent, and then work backwards to 1 April 2012.

Outsourcing dishwashing?

I refer to the article “Hawkers may soon outsource dishwashing” (Straits Times, Aug 5).

Higher costs?

It states that “Despite the allure of being lean on manpower, centralised washing would likely mean higher costs for the hawkers.

For instance, they would need to buy new melamine cutlery that is more durable for transportation, said Chia.

And hawkers must be prepared to pay more for the services too. Now, they typically pay cleaners S$200 to S$500 (US$157 to US$393) per month to wipe tables and return dirty dishes to the stalls.

Some top up about another S$500 a month for the dishes to be washed. Others do it themselves.

But with central dishwashing, the total cost is estimated to be as high as S$1,000 per month for participating hawkers.”

Higher food prices?

So, will the higher costs that hawkers have to pay be passed on the consumers by way of higher prices?

This is not the first time that the NEA’s policy change may have caused higher food inflation, and also, arguably lower or stagnant cleaners’ pay.

Cleaners going back to school?

I refer to the articles “Older cleaners give back-to-school programme a tick – Scheme is part of efforts to upgrade the skills of low-wage workers” (Straits Times, Jun 13).

It states that “Since May last year, more than 1,200 (there are 69,000 local workers!) have been receiving English lessons under the Skills Upgrading Initiative for Low Wage Workers, a joint project set up by NTUC LearningHub and the Ministry of Education.

Train & train – got pay increase?

Since the above mentioned news article made no mention of the obvious question – after the training – the cleaners’ pay got go up or not? – I spoke to a few cleaners and they all said that they did not receive any pay increase after the training.

Follow the money trail?

As I understand that hawkers pay rent to public agencies and some hawker centres also pay cleaning fees to public agencies who in turn engage cleaning firms – aren’t some public agencies the primary reason why cleaners continue to be paid declining real wage growth of about minus 40 % over the last 12 years or so. The median wage for cleaners last year was only over $815.

Can we have a detailed accounting of how much fees and rents are collected by public agencies from hawker centres in a year – how much of it is paid to third parties like cleaning companies, and at the end of the day how much of the total sum collected are paid as wages to cleaners?

In other words, how much money in total do public agencies make from hawker centres, and therefore indirectly literally “sucking blood” from so many generally elderly cleaners?

Clean and clear transparency and accountability please?

Well, I say lets’ cut the crap once and for all, and figure out who’s primarily responsible and arguably, should be accountable for the plight of more than 60,000 low-wage local cleaners.

I refer to the article “New licensing rule to raise standards of cleaning firms” (Straits Times, Mar 13).

Licensing of cleaning firms?

It states that “general cleaners in offices or food and beverage establishments must earn at least $1,000 a month.”

So many schemes to raise cleaners’ pay?

The issue of declining pay for cleaners and other low-pay jobs has been going on for many years.

So many initiatives, schemes and programmes have been implemented over the years to address this problem, that I have lost count.

Some of the schemes announced in the past were:-

“Full-time cleaners now earn about $1,000 a month on average, compared to about $750 before the (Town Councils’ cleaners’) scheme was launched in 2008” (“Cleaners’ pay up $250 to $1,000: Congratulations?“)

“Progressive wage concept initiative to raise the wages of cleaners” (“Measure wage targets in hourly pay, not gross total“, Jun 20)

“Unprecedented move by a group of officials from unions, cleaning companies and the Government would raise the pay of cleaners by 23 per cent” (Oct 19)

“Contracts would only be awarded to cleaning companies awarded the Clean Mark Accreditation” (“Parliament: Replies that never answer the question?“, Nov 14)

“The National Trades Union Congress ( NTUC) has set a target to raise 10,000 cleaners’ monthly salary to at least $1,000 by 2015″ (“NTUC: Wages need to account for standard of living?“, Dec 20)

Nobody wants to work?

As to “Labour MP Yeo Guat Kwang said he jumped at the idea after hawkers complained to him about difficulties hiring dishwashers.

“Given the labour shortage and tighter foreign workers quota, outsourcing and automation is the way to go for jobs that locals do not want to do,” he said” – why are there more than 60,000 local cleaners, and only about 17,400 foreigners, if locals do not want to work as cleaners (despite the very low pay now)? Why not increase the pay to try to attract even more locals to work?

Speaking up for consumers? 

Also, as the president of CASE, shouldn’t Mr Yeo be speaking up for and be concerned about the impact of likely higher food prices to consumers (which arguably any consumer association’s president in the world would do)?

I refer to the report “Cleaning fees raised at nine hawker centres” (Channel NewsAsia, Nov 14).

Cleaners pay increased? Don’t know?

It states that “On how the fees hikes will impact cleaners’ salaries, Ms Fu said she is not able to provide details on the extent to which the increases in fees would benefit the cleaners since it would depend on the operations of each cleaning service provider”.

So much has been said about the issue of very low pay cleaners that almost everybody including Parliamentarians have been asking how much has the pay of cleaners increased, after all the initiatives, schemes, etc.

And the answer now in Parliament is essentially we are not able to tell you.

Don’t know? Why don’t just ask?

Can’t we simply ask the NEA to ask the cleaning companies it awarded contracts as to how much more they are paying their cleaners?

Can’t we just send a few people to ask the cleaners at these nine food centres as to how much their pay has gone up?

“First world” Parliament?

Such is the standard of our Parliament in a so called “first world” country!

Yet another new scheme to help cleaners?

I refer to the article “New accreditation scheme for cleaning firms from next month” (Straits Times, Oct 19)

It states that “One day after a tripartite group set basic starting salaries for cleaners, the Government announced on Friday that cleaning firms must sign on to a new accreditation scheme before they can tender for government contracts from April next year.

The Enhanced Clean Mark scheme, which adds more criteria to an existing voluntary Clean Mark Accreditation scheme, will be rolled out from next month.

The move is aimed at raising professional standards in the cleaning industry as well cleaners’ wage prospects, said Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu.

“In order to professionalise itself, the industry has to incorporate good practices to upgrade the skill levels of the workers… and systematise work processes,” she said on the sidelines of a visit to a cleaning firm. The enhanced scheme was an “important step” towards raising the standards of the cleaning industry, she added.”

Over the years, there have been so many initiatives and schemes to raise the pay of cleaners – “productivity enhancement”, “best out-sourcing”, “town councils’ cleaners’ scheme”, “progressive wage concept”, and now a new enhanced scheme to replace the Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme.

Pay still very low?

However, despite all these – “Currently, cleaners in these positions earn between S$675 and S$950″ (“10,000 cleaners set to get pay increases“, Channel NewsAsia, Oct 18).

How much longer do cleaners have to wait?

Participation in the new accreditation scheme is voluntary, but from April 1 2013, firms bidding for government contracts must be accredited, which aims for cleaners to be well trained and managed, and fairly paid.

So, since the scheme is only effectively from April 1 2013, how much longer will cleaners have to wait in in order to get “fairly paid”?

Another failed scheme?

Since only 61 of the 910 cleaning firms were then accredited under the current (old) scheme, it may clearly have been a failure.

Always increase fees, but cleaners keep getting low pay?

By the way, since the monthly cleaning fees that some hawkers pay will increase by as much as 156 per cent, from $240 to $614, the question that may be on everyone’s mind is how much will the pay of the cleaners in these food centres increase? (“Hawkers hit out at hike in cleaning fees“, Straits Times, Sep 27).

Perhaps we should focus on increasing the pay of cleaners first, instead of coming out with some more new schemes, like the subject latest “centralised dish-washing”, which may substantially increase the costs of hawkers and food prices.

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