Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Low-wage workers

Mar 3, 2010
War of words over low wage workers

WP's Low and PAP MPs cross swords on foreign worker policy
By Sue-Ann Chia

A WAR of words between Mr Low Thia Khiang and People's Action Party MPs erupted yesterday when the Workers' Party chief attacked the Government, saying its policies have done little to lift the lot of low-wage workers over the years.

Blaming especially its foreign worker policy, he suggested that the levy for hiring them be scrapped and employers be allowed to employ fewer of these workers.
In his 20-minute speech, the Hougang MP lashed out at the strategy of maximising growth in the past decade, pointing out that it has caused salaries of low-income workers to stagnate and, in turn, widened the income gap.

'When the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) has to be revised upward and the qualifying monthly income limit increased to $1,700 to ensure low-wage earners are not left behind in our foreigner-dependent economy, doesn't that raise an alarm in the Government about the meagre salary our low-wage workers are getting?' he said. 'The growth strategy... for the past 10 years has definitely not made these Singaporean workers feel any sense of progress with the nation.'
He placed the responsibility for helping the low-income achieve higher wages on the Government's shoulders. 'It is easy to blame our local workforce for low productivity but who opened the gates to allow foreign workers to flood the labour market in the first place?' he said.
'Easy access to cheap foreign labour offers little incentive for companies to up their productivity... The Government has to assume some responsibility for the low productivity in the last decade.'

He wanted the Government to improve their pay soon and not wait for productivity gains to reach the target set in 10 years. 'How long more must our low-wage workers wait to enjoy a First World pay?' he asked.

On the foreign worker levy, he argued the savings from doing away with it, coupled with a reduced dependency ratio, could be used by the company to provide employment for local workers, upgrade the production process or send local workers for training.

'The reduced dependency ratio will force employers to look hard at how to reskill and make Singaporean workers productive instead of looking to relatively lower-cost foreign workers as an option to compete in the market.'

PAP MPs, especially those from the labour movement such as Mrs Josephine Teo (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Mr Seng Han Thong (Yio Chu Kang), slammed his ideas.
Both accused him of ignoring government measures like Workfare to supplement the income of low-wage earners.

Mrs Teo and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) also criticised his levy suggestion.
'Without the levies, foreign workers are even cheaper and even more attractive to businesses. And some of these businesses will find loopholes to get round the quotas, to get more of the cheaper foreign workers,' said Mrs Teo.

Ms Ng added that any move to tighten the dependency ratio as a way to raise workers' wages could also lead to higher cost of living for consumers.

Mr Low jumped up to respond several times during the debate.

On help for low-wage workers, he said that despite measures like Workfare, 'the fact remains that the low-wage worker remains low-wage... So is the Government going to be happy to say, 'Okay, I've given you some assistance and thereby you remain low wage?''

On the labour MPs' assertions that he did not offer alternatives, he said in Mandarin: 'What solution do they have?... Maybe they don't even have their own views because they are members of the Government and NTUC.'

As this is the Year of the Tiger, Mr Low used a Chinese proverb 'hu jia hu wei' - a fox assuming a tiger's identity - to describe the labour MPs. It meant they had borrowed someone else's authority.

As for ditching the levy, he said it had 'become an opium, opium for the Government because it collects money from the levy, opium for the businesses because it's a soft option for them'.
On Ms Ng's point that higher wages lead to higher cost of living, he said: 'That could happen... But can we say that because we're worried about the cost going up, then we... want a section of our society to continue to be impoverished?

'Is it fair?'

[These are valid concerns, and the low skilled, low income worker does not have a lot of options. What is the best way to help them? Protect them or their jobs? Force employers to employ them? Ensure they have priority in any jobs?

The question is what jobs can they do and what are the jobs worth? If we pay them more than what their jobs are worth in order for them to have a minimum wage, we inflate costs that will be passed on down the consumption line. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Somewhere down the line the buck, and the bill stops and someone has to pay for it. Unless suggestions propose a way to pay that is acceptable to Singaporeans, these proposals are just elections promises.]

Mar 3, 2010

Disquiet drives transport unionist to make plea

By Zakir Hussain

LABOUR MP Ong Ah Heng (Nee Soon Central) has been fighting for the welfare of bus drivers for nearly 30 years, and helped redesign their jobs in recent years. But even with a pay of $1,800, 'which is not small', very few locals want the job, he lamented.

This was why Singapore needs foreigners to drive buses here, he told the House yesterday. Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Ong acknowledged that the issue of foreign workers had created some disquiet among segments of the population.

He said: 'In my constituency, many low-wage workers are hostile to foreign workers because they think foreign workers depress their wages.'

Mr Ong, who is honorary consultant to the National Transport Workers' Union, said the two bus companies here get about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of their drivers from Malaysia and China. Of SBS Transit's 5,500 drivers, only 38 per cent are citizens, with the others permanent residents or foreigners. For SMRT, 70 per cent of its 2,000 drivers are Singaporeans or PRs. 'If not for foreign drivers, who will be driving our buses?' he asked.

Having outsiders augment the drivers' pool means commuters wait only five minutes for some buses, he said. And even if wages of drivers could go up, would people be willing to pay higher fares?

A similar conundrum exists in cleaning, construction and manual work, which Singaporeans shun, despite recent efforts by the labour movement to upgrade such jobs to attract locals. Cleaning contractors pay $800 to $1,000 a worker, while foreign workers are paid only $600, noted Mr Ong.

He related how a cleaning contractor asked him to suggest locals for the job, and he found work for several residents over the age of 60 who said they did not have money for breakfast. But they quit after three days. 'How can you blame employers for employing foreign workers? Every Singaporean knows if they don't do this, all work will come to a stop,' he said.

He also noted that foreign cleaners are invaluable to housing estates, and cited a family who complained that cleaners in their area were lazy and old. 'They don't want local workers who are old, they want young foreign workers. To satisfy the demand, I changed the local workers to foreign workers. Foreign workers are not a burden to us,' he said. 'Without foreign workers, things will be worse."

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