Targeted minimum wage – a positive step, but more can be done

The Online Citizen is greatly encouraged by the announcement made by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in relation to implementing minimum wage for workers in the cleaning and security sectors.

We are heartened that DPM Tharman recognises this glaring lack in these two industries. These are thankless but essential jobs that have kept Singapore going, and it is a grave mistake to allow employers to unfairly exploit workers by suppressing their wages.

While DPM Tharman has claimed that this by no means indicates a minimum wage model for Singapore, but is rather a targeted wage model, it is encouraging to note that the government is not adverse to policies that ensure adequate and fair compensation for those most in need in our society.

DPM’s announcement is a step in the right direction, and definitely more can be done to improve on such an important direction in our national wage system.

For a start, the quantum sum of $1,000 for cleaners should be found wanting. Many local cleaners are in the elderly age group, and given rising healthcare costs, they deserve a much better wage to see them through their sunset years in dignity. We look forward to an upward increase in this quantum as Singapore’s cost of living rises.

While DPM has rightly tackled two industries long in need of minimum wage, there are also other industries that are just as vulnerable and in need of attention. These include high-risk occupations, such as in the shipyard and construction industries. We strongly encourage the government to take a holistic view of all industries in Singapore and accord workers their rightful wages.

Commentators to the policy have also highlighted the risk of exploitation in this new initiative. Would cleaning and security companies seek to recover costs from this wage increase by resorting to unscrupulous means?

For example, it is not difficult to imagine that employers bent on a high profit margin might retrench a significant part of their workforce and force the remaining workers to work longer hours without a corresponding investment in technology and processes to ease their workload. The possibility of such actions threatens to undermine such a policy, and the government needs to demand greater transparency and accountability from employers to ensure this does not happen.

There is also the possibility that employers might allow their Singaporean workforce to enjoy this increase, but recover costs from their foreign workforce. This might include repatriation of the current foreign workers, and hiring new foreign workers at much lower wages. Neither of these steps can be deemed ethical in any way. TOC believes in fair wage for the same work, and strongly encourage the government to extend this minimum wage policy to foreign workers as well. Doing so is not only beneficial to foreigners, but to Singaporeans as well, as it ensures employers are discouraged from hiring foreigners over locals.

We note that there are many enforcement and legislative functions in the suggestions above, to ensure that the worker-centric aspirations of this policy do not go to waste through mismanagement. The Ministry of Manpower needs to play an active role here to ensure the right conduct of companies. The fact that the announcement was made by the DPM clearly demonstrates the gravity of the policy and the need to do right by workers. We also hope that MOM will take DPM’s lead and work towards fair wages for all industries in Singapore.

Unless the government reaches out beyond cleaners and security guards, and implement fair wages for all, such a noble start would only remain half-hearted. It also encourages public suspicion that the government is merely targeting sectors where Singaporean low wage earners are concentrated for political reasons. To assure citizens that this is not the case, it can only benefit the government to widen the application of the minimum wage and make it universal.

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