The government has just announced that it will set a basic salary rate of SGD1000 for cleaners. While this is an important first step, I query:
1. Why the new rule does not cover foreigners and resident Singaporeans equally; and
2. Why the same rule is not being extended to workers in other sectors such as the construction industry.
In recent years, a chief bone of contention among Singaporeans is the influx of foreigners who have been perceived as willing to accept lower salaries and thus taking jobs away from Singaporeans. Would enacting this basic salary, which applies to resident Singaporeans only, not encourage companies to hire foreigners over Singaporeans thus adding fuel to the fire? Besides, if the workers are doing the same job, i.e. cleaning, it seems illogical to differentiate between foreigners and resident Singaporeans?
There have been many incidences of tension between foreigners and Singaporeans of late and while this regulation is no doubt well meaning, it could be counterproductive by further highlighting the Singaporean and non-Singaporean divide.
Cleaners play a vital role in our society and are worthy of our protection but why stop there? What about the construction workers who toil for long hours to build our country? Many of them are vulnerable to exploitation and the number of stories of such grievous exploitation is too many to recount. Do they not deserve basic salary rates too?
As a developed country with a large foreign workforce, there is simply no good reason to exclude foreigners from mandatory salary rates for doing the same work. Not only is it pointless, it may have the unintended result of causing further ill will between foreigners and Singaporeans by unwittingly promoting the hiring of foreigners over Singaporeans and causing further exploitation of foreigners.
Similarly, workers from all manual sectors should be afforded the same level of protection. It should not be any different for workers in sectors where the risks of exploitation are just as high.
The causes of the Little India riot are of course many and I do not want to over simplify the problem. That being said, I sincerely believe that chronic frustration over their working conditions are a significant part of the equation. It is therefore crucial to address the needs of our construction workers too.
In the words of labour activist, Jolovan Wham: “I think it’s a good first step, but this should pave the way for legislation to be enacted eventually… Such a basic wage should apply to sectors like construction, marine and services, for instance, and also apply to workers of all nationalities.”