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S’pore nursing aide earns only $1,350 far below other economies’ – thanks to cheap foreign labour in eldercare industry

Philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation released a report yesterday (26 Jul), revealing that eldercare workers have been severely underpaid in Singapore, contributing to high turnover.

“Despite concerted efforts to raise pay, redesign jobs and improve skills and productivity, the sector seems afflicted by constant churn and the ‘leaky bucket’ syndrome,” the report commented.

Surveys conducted by Lien Foundation show that less than half of the eldercare workers found their salaries competitive. It also compared findings from Singapore against data in four other advanced, fast-ageing economies in Asia-Pacific – Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

Among the five economies, Singapore ranks at the bottom on wages for eldercare workers. A local nursing aide in Singapore earns an average of S$1,350 a month, compared with S$3,750 in Hong Kong and S$3,290 in Australia. Singaporean nurses are also paid the lowest among the 5 countries:

And what is worse in Singapore is that the government allows mass importation of foreign workers into this industry with each earning only S$850 on average, further pulling-down the wages of Singaporean eldercare workers.

Hence, it is no surprise that the report found that the turnover rates for Singaporean eldercare workers are extremely high in Singapore.

A good example is Ms Yuliana Muhamad Yusoff, 36, who used to earn S$1,300 a month as a healthcare assistant in a nursing home. She quit her job in 2016 after two years, and took up a position as a reservations officer in a hotel instead, which pays her at least $500 more.

“Working in a nursing home is not easy. You have to get to know the patients well and put up with their moods. Some even spit in your face if they are angry. Even though I enjoyed the job, it didn’t pay enough for me to provide for my family.”

Singapore has the highest percentage of foreign workers in eldercare industry

Of the five economies studied, the report also revealed that Singapore has the most percentage of foreign workers in the eldercare industry, comprising of some 70 per cent of direct care workers here. This compared with about 32 per cent in Australia and less than 10 per cent in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Percentage of foreign workers in eldercare sector

  • Singapore – 70%
  • Australia – 32%
  • Hong Kong – less than 10%
  • Japan – less than 10%
  • Korea – less than 10%

While spending on long-term care went up to $800 million in the financial year 2016 from $600 million the year before, Singapore still has relatively low government spending on long-term care, compared with other 4 economies, said Ms Basu, Director of Research and Advocacy at Lien Foundation.

For example, Singapore spent only 0.19 per cent of its GDP in FY2016, compared with 0.9 per cent in South Korea, on long-term healthcare.

These figures indicate that there is room for the Government to further subsidise the long-term care sector, to relieve the load of manpower costs, which make up the largest chunk of operators’ expenses, Ms Basu said.

“We do not have to go the way of other countries that are spending in an unsustainable manner. But right now, we are at the other end of the spectrum,” she added.

Speaking to a doctor who has decades of experience in the Singapore healthcare industry, he said to TOC that the administration tends to cut cost with the manpower costs relating to nurses as it takes up the main bulk of the operating expenses which is then amplified when spread across the sheer number of nurses required to meet operaton needs.

TOC understands that a significant number of Singaporean nurses have chosen to work in places such as Australia and New Zealand due to higher pay and better work-life balance, with many going to the extent of migrating for good. Even skilled foreign nurses choose to shift overseas for better pay and working conditions due to the wide gap of treatment in Singapore.

Looking for cheaper options?

In June this year, Singapore and India concluded the second review of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) and in the new enhanced CECA, is a clause that to agree to a mutual recognition on nursing to facilitate a better understanding of the standard in regulating the training and practice of nursing.

Indian media recognised the significance of the clause and reported that it will be “easier for domestic nurses to explore employment opportunities in Singapore now, as India has signed mutual recognition agreement (MRA) with the south-east Asian nation in this sector”.

Will there a new flood of cheaper nurses as Singapore healthcare lowers its standard so as to meet its budget and operation demands, just as how Singapore employment agencies have resorted to seeking domestic workers from rural Myanmar, who don’t speak a single word of English as Indonesians and Filipinos shun Singapore due to its low wages and poor working conditions.

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