At a roundtable on wages organised by ST on Friday (30 Nov), five panellists were invited to talk about Singapore's wage model. The five, former labour chief Lim Boon Heng, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, labour MP Zainal Sapari, and employers, Mr Kurt Wee and Mr Daniel Thong, sparred on the various labour issues.
At one point, Dr Koh mentioned that workers at the bottom of the pyramid earn very low wages because they're competing against one million low-wage workers from other countries.
It was clear that Dr Koh was referring to Singaporean workers at the lower strata competing with the low-wage foreign workers currently working in Singapore, since indeed, according to MOM data, there were already some 966,200 foreign workers on work permit working in Singapore as at Jun 2018.
Dr Koh continued, "A brilliant Palestinian blogger, Nas, recently had a series of videos on Singapore, one of which was called Crazy Poor Asians, and his point is Singaporeans are not rich and the average Singaporean is just getting by."
"And he made the point that the average wage of the foreign workers in Singapore is only $600 a month, and he worked it out - less than US$2 (S$2.70) per hour - and he asked: Why is it so low? And he answered his own question - because there is no minimum wage in Singapore," Dr Koh added.
"So the reason why people at the bottom of the pyramid earn such low wages (is) because they're competing against a million low-paid workers from the region (working in Singapore)."
MP Zainal: We have in place policies to mitigate
MP Zainal then went into the usual government's rhetoric on the need for foreign workers.
He said, "We have to realise that we need the foreign workers to supplement our workforce. While the presence of the foreign workers does impact wages in Singapore, we have in place policies to mitigate."
"For example, in the cleaning industry, you cannot hire as many cleaners as you want because there is a quota system which is actually enforced. Likewise, even for the S Pass, there is a quota system which is enforced," he added.
Strangely, instead of going into details exploring if government's mitigation has been enough to raise the average wage of Singaporean low-wage workers, MP Zainal went on to defend that the $600 a month salary is actually enough for foreign workers.
He countered Dr Koh, "And when Prof Tommy Koh mentioned that you have many foreign cleaners, and they are earning less than $600 per month, I think on the part of NTUC, we hold the perspective that the wages that you pay must be seen to be fair, and fair doesn't mean it has to be the same."
MP Zainal seems to forget the issue of agent fees that his Bangla worker has to pay
MP Zainal said that in fact, $700 a month was enough for a Bangla worker to buy land back home.
He explained, "I recall when I was working in my town council, I met with one of my cleaning supervisors and he was earning around $700, and he was sharing with me that he has been working there for maybe - if I'm not mistaken - six years, yet he managed to buy two parcels of land back in Bangladesh - something which I don't think is possible for a worker in Singapore."
What MP Zainal said, is very anecdotal and skeptical to say the least.
In an investigative report that TOC did in 2014 where foreign cleaners were allegedly sent back after refusing to pay their company money to stay in Singapore, the cleaners were indeed paid $700 a month but it was for 7 days a week, with the workers claiming to work from 5am till 10pm or later each day.
The workers had to pay for all expenses less the accommodation for the three years that they had worked in Singapore and had paid a sum of $10,500 when they first came over to Singapore. Subsequently they paid another sum of $2,500 to extend their stay here for another one year. So according to them, they paid a total sum of $13,000 to work for the period of three years.
MP Zainal was the MP in charge of the area. After TOC raised the matter to the MP and sent him evidence of the contractor admitting to the collection of agent fees, he threw the matter to MOM and MWC and closed the case from there.
How exactly is a foreign cleaner in his constituency able to buy land when he is subjected to the low wage and excessive charges as described by the workers whom TOC interviewed?
MP Zainal goes on to state,
"And we also have to bear in mind that there are other costs involved in engaging a foreign worker. You just cannot look at the wage cost alone. In fact, I dare say that to hire a foreign cleaner, the total cost is actually higher than to hire a local cleaner. But the companies (are) willing to do it because of a higher productivity level,"
MP Zainal seems to be missing the point altogether. Singaporean workers don't really care if foreign workers are making enough as market forces would take care of it. If they are paid too lowly, they would simply not take the trouble to come work in Singapore. And even if they were paid too low, as in being conned to come here, they have to still work in order to pay off the debts incurred coming to Singapore due to the agent fees and other expenses.
TOC also understands from the foreigner cleaners who were sent back that there was a few cleaners who were employed by the cleaning company at around 1k a month. 1k a month at that time was the minimum salary which MOM recognise as a full-time worker and allocated foreign worker quota for the Singaporean hired for the company.
As Professor Tommy Koh clearly points out why some Singaporeans earn so little and continue to be poor, "...the reason why people at the bottom of the pyramid earn such low wages (is) that they're competing against a million low-paid workers from the region,"
Therefore, MP Zainal should answer this question, "are our Singaporean workers being paid enough to live and feed a family in our own home country?"