Stop blaming low-wage service workers for poor service

by Aloysius Chia

When encountering service staff who seem to provide a ‘poor’ service, it is quite easy to deride them as being the cause of their own poor performance, say at a restaurant or at a retail store, which are outlets of leisurely activity for many who have time and money to spare.

On the other hand, for many who work in service jobs, these jobs are often pressure cooker places where they have to deal with the demands from multiple customers at once. At a restaurant a waiter or waitress has to remember to get the correct order to the right table, take down orders, clear up tables, rearrange tables, and deal with special requests – multitasking and dexterity at a short intense peak period is the order of the day.

It is therefore quite amusing and somewhat impenetrable that a writer of the article, “Get rid of poor service staff, let only the fittest survive” (Straits Times, 10 June 2017) has taken his righteous thoughts to be that the only way to make service workers better at their job is to fire those that seem bad.

He comes out with a self-assured ‘survival test’, where “If you have five average workers, tell them that only the best three will remain.” and the rest will get a pay rise of 30%. All is good until the purveyor of the test finds out that when he fired the two worst performers, those that remain had more to do and their performance drops because they cannot cope as well as before.

To make things worse, service workers have one of the lowest wages of any occupational category. According to the Ministry of Manpower latest available occupational wage data for 2015, the basic and gross wage of a waiter is S$1100 and S$1200 respectively; that of a captain waiter S$1686 and S$2116 respectively (below the 20th percentile of incomes in Singapore).

The incentives that lead to waiters or service workers in general are not symmetrical to those occupations that have a more progressive wage structure. When someone, say a marketing or sales person in a company does well, he or she can get better wages and hope to get promoted, taking more responsibilities. When a waiter or low wage service worker does so, the worker is deemed to be replaceable.

This occurs because, on the contrary to only the service worker’s attitude, the price of good service is not easily gauged and measurable. The price of any product is stated on menus and tags, the price of good service, because it is hard to measure, makes uncertain how much to pay, and so in the end employers and customers alike don’t pay for it.

Which brings to the point of the article in question: to raise the standards of service staff to being world class so that Singapore can be a more attractive and desirable destination. If we want to make our service workers great, why not also pay them world class wages (or at least comparable to the best)? Why not also train them to be world class, instead of lazily taking it as a given that some are already bad?