We have all seen them – the elderly folks who toil away at our food centres such as hawker centres, coffeeshops and food courts, cleaning tables, collecting dishes and sweeping floors.
They have become such a ubiquitous feature that we hardly notice them anymore.
But even so, sometimes certain situations we witness still raise questions about our society and how we treat these folks.
At about 10pm on Saturday night, Ms Jenny Quek was at the Kopitiam food court at Vivo City. The unusual thing about what she witnessed was the number of tables which were littered with used and uncollected dishes – and that there was only one elderly cleaner toiling away trying to do her best to clear the tables.
Ms Quek took a video and posted it online:
“It was rather depressing to see only one cleaner at the section where I was seated,” Ms Quek told The Online Citizen (TOC). “I looked around hoping to see another helper but there was none.”
She said there was, however, another elderly folk at the dish collecting area emptying the remnants from the collected bowls.
“I was feeling helpless,” Ms Quek added. “Wished I could extend a helping hand. There was still a lot of clearing to be done.”
She explained why she posted the video online: “I wanted to share my personal disappointment at the way our seniors are being mobilized by their employers to work at sub standard wages. And in this particular case, it was already quite late at night.”
“Why can’t it be younger workers doing the job at that hour?” she asked. “By the time the old lady finished clearing the tables (and looking at the mess), I think it would take another good hour for her to completely gather the bowls and dishes….and by then it’s very late for her to go home, isn’t it? Tired or not?”
There are no statistics providing breakdowns on these elderly folks who clean our tables at such food outlets, but there is a total of 70,000 cleaners in Singapore in all, with one third of them foreigners.
The Singapore Government sees old folks working as part of its “active ageing” campaign.
However, not everyone agrees with this, especially of old people who toil away for hours at labour-intensive and menial jobs which pay low salaries.
In 2014, the Government moved to increase the salaries of cleaners to S$1,000, from an average of S$850 gross pay previously.
“Not only is that low pay, but most cleaners have also not enjoyed the real wage growth seen among workers nationally, including other low-income Singaporeans, in the last five years,” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said then.
Increasing the pay of cleaners here to S$1,000 has taken 3 years, after the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) first announced in 2012 that it aimed to do this for 10,000 cleaners by 2015.
In 2016, the Government’s Silver Support Scheme will also come into effect.
The scheme is a permanent initiative which aims to help the bottom 20 per cent of Singaporeans aged 65 and above.
They will receive between S$300 and $750 every quarter, depending on their background.
“Most of those living in one- and two-room flats are expected to receive Silver Support, with a smaller proportion of those living in larger flats qualifying,” the Straits Times said.
“Those who have been homemakers for a good part of their lives and hence earned little will qualify, if their families are not well off,” Mr Tharman said.
Still, some feel that older folks doing menial work to survive is undesirable for a first-world society and one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
“Men and women in their 70s being forced to clean tables at hawker centres, scrub apartment blocks or slog in the hot sun as security guards were not signs of ‘active ageing’,” the Straits Times reported the former head of ageing issues at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Alexandre Kalache, as having said in 2011, referring to Singapore.
The Straits Times:
He pointed out that much of the developed world already had “non-contributory pensions” – or handouts – for low-income older folk, saving them the indignity of hard labour at a time in life when many may want to retire and rest.
“I am all for active ageing, but if you have never had a decent job, don’t know what job satisfaction is, to make you work till you practically drop dead is not human,” he said.
“Despite what the current Government may say and reaffirm from time to time about the usefulness of engaging old folks in back cracking jobs such as these, and calling it ‘active aging’, I would say it’s a shame to put your senior citizens through it all,” Ms Quek said.
“’Active aging’ is when one has the means to really pursue his or her twilight years happily without having to toil … walking, standing, bending over and scrapping leftover food for hours at food courts for a ‘derisory’ wage,” she said.
At the very least, she said the Government should set a minimum wage.
“Give these folks a feeling of self esteem for the kind of jobs they’re doing,” Ms Quek said. “Pay them well.”
The Government, however, has rejected the suggestion of a minimum wage which have been made by not a few people, including prominent personalities such as Professor Tommy Koh in September 2010.
“As a Straits Times correspondent recently commented, Singapore is a First World country with Third World wage structure,” Prof Koh said.
In 2014, a team of five individuals decided to look into the issue of a certain number of senior citizens being left behind while Singapore progresses forward.
See here: “Singapore’s Old Recycled“.
This was the video they produced: