80% of Singaporeans want to pay more to essential workers in cleaning and security industries

Netizens call for a minimum wage to be implemented for those in these industries

A survey by The Straits Times and consumer research firm Milieu Insight revealed that about eight in 10 Singaporeans are open to paying more for essential services like cleaning and security if the extra money goes straight to the workers themselves.

Respondents stated that they are willing to pay up to 10 per cent or 20 per cent more for the mentioned services, and this includes service and conservancy charges (S&CC) for Housing Board flat dwellers or maintenance fees for private property owners.

Generally, the monthly cost of S&CC for Singaporeans range from S$20 to S$90. This means that a 20 per cent increase could amount to about an additional S$18 a month.

The online survey was conducted by a Singapore-based consumer research firm called Milieu Insight and surveyed around 1,000 respondents aged 16 and above. It was carried out from 5 to 8 June with a nationally representative sampling across age, gender, and income groups in order to find out how people’s perception of essential workers have changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and if they think it’s okay to pay these workers more.

Respondents’ willingness to pay more for essential workers is most likely due to the recent pandemic, as 73 per cent of those surveyed said that they “respect essential workers more now”.

When asked on who they considered as essential workers, respondents listed doctors, cleaners, garbage collectors, hawkers, and deliverymen.

“Unfortunately, in many societies, the more useful the work is, the less they pay you,” MP Zainal Sapari, assistant secretary-general of the National Trade Union Congress, said in Parliament this month.

There are about 62,000 individuals working in the cleaning industry and some 48,000 in the security workforce. However, these individuals receive some of the lowest wages among the other occupations classified under the essential work category.

Over the years, there have been some changes made to increase the wages for workers in these industries. Under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which commands a wage floor for workers in certain industries, salaries went up from last year for security officers and from 2017 for cleaners.

The basic monthly wage for a security officer and general cleaner is now S$1,250 and S$1,200, respectively.

Unfortunately, the basic salaries for these essential workers still fall in the bottom fifth percentile, according to the gross monthly wages of resident workers, said Mr Sapari. For example, the median monthly basic salary for a general office clerk in 2018 was S$2,225.

In Australia, the average monthly wage for a cleaner is AUS$2,742 (S$2,599), whereas the average monthly salary for a security guard is AUS$2,233 (S$2,117). Both these wages include housing, transport, and other benefits.

In the survey, when asked on what companies should do to increase the salaries of essential workers, 60 per cent of respondents suggested for companies to pay workers based on the amount of tasks completed instead of by headcount. By doing so, this will ensure that these workers can get paid more provided they complete more tasks.

47 per cent called for employers to hire more Singaporeans instead of foreigners. Another 46 per cent said that training workers should do more work within the same time frame to justify a higher pay. However, roughly 5 per cent of respondents stated that companies do not have to do anything much.

Although there has been a push to switch from headcount-based cleaning contracts to outcome-based contracts in the last few years, sociologist Chua Beng Huat noted that a wage rise based on higher productivity defeats the purpose of wanting a fair salary for the lowest-paid workers.

“It assumes that the workers are not already working to their capacity and suggests a greater rate of exploitation of labour,” Mr Chua remarked.

If that’s not all, nominated MP Walter Theseira also said in Parliament recently that society must rethink, appreciate, and value essential, manual work more. He also agreed that tying wages to productivity is a “false equivalence”.

“We must be prepared to value labour, even if productivity improvements are limited in the traditional sense by the nature of the job,” he expressed.

Call for compulsory hike in wages

When questioned what the Government should do in regards to this situation, 59 per cent of respondents said that there should be higher Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) payouts for these workers. This was the top choice picked by those surveyed.

Their next suggestion is to collect less in foreign worker levies and command companies to pass the savings to workers (56 per cent).

Another 50 per cent of respondents want companies that award contracts solely on the ground of price to be penalised. This is so they will be forced to consider performance and quality as well.

Mr Sapari noted that providing a higher WIS payout for essential service workers may bridge the gap in the short term. This will also encourage more workers to join these industries. However, the politician noted that this may not be sustainable over time.

As such, he hinted that the best way to improve the salaries of essential workers is through PWM, where compliance is compulsory.

“Without regulations or licensing to ensure across-the-board adherence, progressive employers will find little incentive to pay better wages and benefits as they will be priced out by their competitors who may (lower) tender prices to win contracts,” he said, adding that support from unions, employers, and the Government is needed to make more changes to the PWM for essential workers.

Netizens’ reaction

Upon reading the results of the survey, many netizens stated that they agree with the need to pay more to essential workers working in industries like cleaning and security.

Penning their thoughts in the Facebook page of The Straits Times, online users stated that these workers work very hard to ensure “the services is delivered at every places”, making it important for them to get better wage.

Others expressed that a minimum wage for those in these professions must be implemented. The reason being is that these workers are important and they should not be “neglected or taken advantaged of by consumers”.

However, one user named Yanfeng Tang opined that while it’s good for the public to urge the Government to implement minimum wage, but they fail to understand “the economic turmoil it would cost”.

The user said that minimum wage will result to an increased cost to businesses and this will be “passed on” to consumers. If that’s not all, the user added that minimum wage can cause more unemployment because employers will be reluctant to hire individuals due to the high cost.

A number of online users also noted that they are willing to pay more to these workers, but they do not want the employers to “take an additional share of the pie”.

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