Commentary: Getting back to the future of productivity
The Channel News Asia article on 13 January, “Commentary: Getting back to the future on productivity” asked about what happened to automatic car-washes.
The article noted that at its peak, the automatic drive-throughs were fixtures at most petrol stations then something happened.
Tastes changed. Demands evolved. People started talking about how car-washes left ugly whirly marks, or worse, scratches on paint jobs. Automation had gone wrong. And so, hand-washing slowly made a come-back.
Bit by bit, driven by motorists demanding a bit more TLC for their cars and paint jobs, real hands became the go-to luxury. Automatic brushes and cloths were out, and car-washes began to be hollowed out. The machines were removed, replaced ironically by what must have been cheaper warm bodies within.
It was car-lover heaven. We had come full circle. We didn’t just have one person giving your car a hand-wash, we had many more.
So what happened? Did we so regress in our productivity? How much of it was driven by consumer demand? How much by some sort of perverse supply-induced demand? Or was it a combination of both?”
Huge influx of cheap foreign labour?
In my view, the primary factor contributing to the replacement of automatic car washes by several human beings, may arguably be our liberal foreign labour policy which allowed the huge influx of cheap labour – arguably taking jobs away from Singaporeans and depressing wages.
In this connection, anecdotally, when was the last time you saw a Singaporean worker in a manual car wash?
As to “To meet our unquenchable thirst for convenience, the petrol station has now become a heaving hub of manpower: The cashiers, the managers, the stockists, the uncles filling your tanks, the men cleaning your car, and perhaps the odd one or two even giving it a vacuum. Do we need all this?” – similarly, anecdotally, when was the last time you saw a Singaporean cashier, manager, stockist, or tank filler?
Consumers have a major role to play?
With regard to “Consumers have a major role to play in reviewing our own consumption patterns. We can’t have our cake and eat it, in wanting these labour-intensive conveniences, yet decrying low productivity and low wages. Demand ultimately changes supply patterns.
Govt has a bigger role to play?
And there’s no reason why we can’t do it” – arguably, the one who can and need to have a major role to play, may be the Government.
More cheap labour = no productivity growth?
As long as we continue to have increasing hordes of cheap foreign workers and lowly paid Singaporeans as well to boot – all these unmotivated workers slogging it out to irk a living, may never result in higher productivity growth which has been almost flat for ages!