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Folksy thoughts on the workers lot

The debate on having a minimum wage is back and this time it’s back with force. The reason for this is simple – Dr. Jamus Lim, who is the Member of Parliament for Sengkang Group Representation Council (GRC) for the Workers’ Party and a star economist. Dr. Lim managed to make what has traditionally a placid affair (the usual case being a state of every time someone suggests what little the poor get should be protected by law, the ruling party inevitably comes up with a statistic suggesting that its bad for the poor) into a news storm because he had the audacity to suggests that we needed to find hard statistics to prove that minimum wage legislation was bad rather than to reply on “folksy wisdom.” Singapore’s normally placid unions have been up in arms over the adjective of “folksy.” More can be found at: [LINK]

This event underlines some of the more serious fault lines in Singapore’s “meritocratic” society. The first one is the fact that we are a society that seems to link wealth with achievement. The official line is that if you are good, you will rise and earn a lot of money. Hence, whenever there’s a debate on ministerial salaries, the bottom line that the government stresses that you need to pay top dollar for top talent and Singapore has done well in the world because we paid good money to have honest and very competent ministers running the show.

However, it’s a different story at the other end of the scale. Whenever anyone floats the idea of any form of legislation that faces the realities of the free market system, the idea is instantly shot down. Things like a minimum wage or unemployment insurance are considered bad for the economy because they’ll somehow raise labour costs and scare away the investors who have made Singapore so wealthy.

Using the military analogy, the message is clear. Generals have to have more money because we need them to plan. The foot soldiers (i.e. the people who actually put their life on the line in a battle) should not be mollycoddled.

The second point of Dr. Jamus Lim’s speech is the focus on the role of unions. In the 20-odd years that I’ve lived in Singapore, this is the first time that I remember seeing our unions say anything. The unions normally prefer to stay mum and let their umbrella organization; the National Trade Unions Congress (NTUC) be the public face on all issues relating to workers.

NTUC is an exceedingly successful organization. It runs a chain of supermarkets and an insurance cooperative amongst many other enterprises. It provides discounts to a number of commercial enterprises (most of which it has a stake in). What is less clear is whether the Union of All Unions has been good at helping the working man. The Secretary General of NTUC is inevitably a cabinet minister, whose main role seems to talk about the success of our “tripartite” model of industrial relations between employers, workers and the government. However, the question remains, what exactly have the unions done for all industrial relations?

The government’s line is that it has done a successful job in as much as Singapore seems to have confined strikes to the history books. I think of the press business where the last strike in journalism was back in 1971 (before I was born). The leader of that strike once admitted that the end of the strike was perhaps good for journalists working conditions but not good for the independent media in as much as the government helped make conditions so comfortable that challenging the status quo was frowned upon.

NTUC will also point out that they offer discounts and in some cases payment for people who want to retrain and thus make themselves more employable. I have yet to take on the paper work required to get paid to learn.

However, does that mean that NTUC has been successful in ensuring harmonious working relationships? As in the case of foreign workers, the answer is likely to be no. Employers begrudge the extra dollars paid to workers as costs and the truth of the matter is that workers continue to struggle. The basic line on wages in Singapore is that the average salary in Singapore is around $4,500 a month and two thirds of us earn below that. Furthermore, costs continue to rise in Singapore. If you want to give the government a headache, just repeat the findings of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has found that Singapore is the world’s most expensive city for expats. If we’re expensive for an expat with all sorts of perks like housing allowances, then what must it be for locals?

The standard line that the government has used as that Singapore has a “progressive” wage model which is better than the Worker’s Party proposal of a minimum wage. They have pointed out to the fact that the poor saps earning $1,300 a month do get “workfare” supplementary support.

As someone who has received workfare, I will say that its nice to see a few extra bucks in your account every quarter. Workfare is a good incentive to help you stay in a job. However, it is by no means a serious supplement to ones living expenses. I take myself, a 46-year old worker as an example. How much I’d get in income support, assuming I earned the proposed minimum of $1,300 a month: [LINK]

Let’s be realistic, the most I’ll be able to do with the money is to buy the family a meal when I receive it. It’s not going to do anything beyond that.

Something needs to be done to ensure that workers at the lower end of the scale have a means of getting a living wage. Rather than dismissing Dr. Lim’s remarks about “folksy wisdom,” the unions should gather their “folksy wisdom” and lead a discussion on making our model for industrial relations better. Unions are after all supposed to protect the rights of the workers as well as selling them products.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

 

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16 Responses to “Folksy thoughts on the workers lot”

  • oxygen:

    IF I AM NOT MISTAKEN of past looking at NTUC-Fairprice annual report, its operation DOES NOT PAY TAX on its operating profit. I guess it is a “workers’ cooperative” not treated as any other tax-paying entity.

    This is quite unlike Sheng Siong or Giant wwhich pays tax on their profits.

    NOT BEING a taxable entity as a cooperative, IT CAN’T COLLECT GST which enables it to tout as a “concession” and “incentive” to customers as NTUC-Fairprice “absorbs” or claims to be so, the customers’ GST.

    If my observations above is right, the supermarket businesses IS NOT A LEVEL-PLAYING FIELD.

    Naturally, not taxable operation will translate to competitive leverage advantage of product pricing and volume customers’ inflow traffic as it is “cheaper” or can imply to be “cheaper” of product offerings.

    On a net “after-tax” basis, NTUC-Fairprice in recent years achieves a return of 5% to 7% on sales -A STAGGERING MARGIN in the mass merchandising food businesses compared to other listed supermarkets around the world from UK, Canada, USA, Australia, Hong Kong where the usual after tax return is 0.5% to 1.5% on sales is the norm.

    NTUC Fairprice should give bigger discounts to low-wage earners and retirees is my argument.

    BUT IT DIAM DIAM DIAM.

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  • Drastic wage change needed!:

    No need argue so much lah. Enough. Admit it, nothing really done and honestly addressed.

    Set minimum wage to breathable $3K per month. The lowest wage worker can therefore on his SINGLE income support his full time housewife who can then concentrate look after the affairs of the home and children. No need for wife to go out to work to help husband and leave children unattended. This is better guarantee to build strong families that will translate to better stronger nation.

    With minimum wage of $3K, in today’s covid situation where many have lost their jobs, many will even be willing, graduates included, to take up low end jobs starting at a meaningful realistic $3K monthly salary to survive until things turn around. Anyway being a road sweeper is not a demeaning job. This job if done diligently to ensure the cleanliness and public hygiene of public area will be a source of personal pride for any worker irregardless of education level.

    Many of the ills in this world is due to couples both going out to work, unnecessarily to earn more money, for materialistic greedy pleasures of a better car and extra holidays, leaving children in their formative years to strange foreign domestic workers, spending monies on clothings to look good in office, some indulging in office outings and extra marital scandals and other unhealthy side effects.

    Yes women must be educated to the highest level she could attain, double PHDs if need be, then let her SERIOUSLY decide once she gets married, evaluate her topmost priority in life that is to assume the noble all-important natural role as the QUEEN of the home. Government must push encourage this thinking, a sea change in the nation’s way of life for the better.

    There will be exceptions but by and large MARRIED WOMEN as full time housewives supported by sole breadwinner husbands earning realistic sufficient salary guaranteed by government is the key and answer to the varied problems the world is facing today i.e. family disharmony with continuing rotating juvenile issues, a vicious cycle.

    The HUGE GLARING stumbling block is the insatiable greed and insensitivity of business owners and those in charge who pay their workers peanuts but bloating their own stomaches with fat salaries, bonuses and profits with still more monies than they really ever need. Never satisfied. They argue that they are always right in whatever they do with their highfalutin language and economic figures. The fact really is they have no humane feelings for the workers.

    Now look at how covid is bleeding them all. This is the divine signal for their inhumanity, the greedy top 10-20 percent, but will they ever learn? The poorly paid low educated income earners never had any genuine sincere leadership, no honest spokesman, no true saviours to really help them out. They have been left adrift floating on their own for decades. They have been totally ignored.

    That’s the ongoing problem for the last 5 decades.

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  • All pap ministers r FREAK:

    The world’s second-largest mobile market could soon be home to a 5G-powered network. Jio Platforms and Qualcomm are partnering up to expedite the development of the high-speed network infrastructure in India.

    Quote.

    Stupid SINGTEL in BIG TROUBLE , AGAIN.

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  • FOXY WISDOM:

    Foxy Wisdom is what it takes to Govern the Sheeples.
    Anything less is a Misconception of Proper Governance.

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  • uselesstankl:

    This naturally did not go down well with some employees and netizens who may not have realised that many local companies have been propped up with extensive state support and subsidies amid Singapore’s worst recession since independence.

    XXXXX

    IT HAD BEEN LOWERING OUR WAGES, CONTROLLING OUR WAGES,

    FOR DONKEY YEARS,

    SO THAT CEO’s

    GET MILLIONS IN PAYOUTS BONUSES,

    TO INGRAIN into thinking THEMSELVES, as

    NOT ” MEDIOCRE ”

    AS A ‘ ROTREN WOOD’ CLAIMED !!!

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  • Two Stars on my Shoulders:

    Tang Li,
    As long as the workers in the dormitories can still be filled and replenished. You can perish the thoughts of a minimum wage. A complete political reboot is needed here. Stop CECA.

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  • xoxo:

    $in City is fast becoming a folk-lore city-remembered for past glory only!

    Folksy?
    Maybe.

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  • Tremendous:

    Not just get high pays, but must be mollycoddled to get high pays.
    Look at the number of rider chiefs ushered in through GRC backdoors for high pays.
    The ass surgeon went to AngMoK after showing off that he had two cars and kenna whacked.
    The ah boy in TanjongPag hiding behind the old man.
    The transport chief getting in behind the health chief coattails.
    The education chief riding happily behind the 2011 trade chief.
    Small list like this is already too much.

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  • SureDie:

    Just say, according to the script, the wages of Sin is death.

    Who shall “die” by “the wages of Sin” implemented or endorsed by the rich?

    Many. Just too many to be counted all over the world besides Sin.

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  • Pay lah:

    Pay lah..
    $1300pm is not too much to ask.
    A family can survive on $1300pm in expensive Singapore ?
    If can ,a Minister pay should be reduced to $2600 pm.

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  • Harder Truths:

    Go ahead. Let them have their minimum wage. See what happens.

    Then when citizens are laid off more than before because employers do not want to give them this salary, let the same people ask for more increases as the salary is obviously ‘not enough’ for locals.

    Meanwhile is anyone wondering why FT group is getting bigger and bigger?

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  • Singaporean:

    Fellow Singaporeans

    S$1300 is not going to do wonders for low paid workers, it is a start though. We can debate but end of the day we have to wait another 5 years.
    Those MP who are free riders will laugh all the way to the bank for next 5 years.
    Ask yourself for a small country why you need so many ministers? Each costs you more than a million each year. Say we have 40 ministers, per year we pay them more than 40 million. Why need 5 mayors in Singapore? Who pays for them? We are the suckers. Ask yourself what have the PAP ministers and mayors contributed for you? The next GE, fire off 20 MP the remaining MP will work their socks off for you.
    Question is do Singaporeans have the guts to do so?

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  • oxygen:

    @ Harder Truths

    THE ANSWER TO YOUR CLOSING QUESTION IS VERY SIMPLE – the foreign influx HAS NOT WORKED – the Economics Strategies Committee warned of that in 2011 AFTER PAST TENSE told the nation in 2010 that “we grew the last 5 years solely by importing foreign labor”.

    PAPpypolitics/PAPpynomics knows that is the suicidal path way BUT NEEDED TO SACRIFICE national survival for another 5 years to preserve its own political hegemony and longevity to the 2015 election.

    Come 2015, Present Tense told the nation – the economy MAXED OUT (despite the flooding in of cheap foreign labor unspoken in that confession).

    It is in the economic tautology:

    GDP = population + productivity

    When you replace that with GDP = population with more foreign population (i.e. foreign population SUBSTITUTING productivity in the above equation, it leads to decaying GDP growth (which explains why economy maxed out), IT IS DIGGING OUR OWN GRAVE by suppressing local wages using foreign labor substitutions.

    that is a suicidal path proven now – 5 YEARS BEFORE COVID-19 PANDEMIC SWEEPS IN.

    How is that (GDP) going to work now without changing the economic input formulae (strategy)?

    Harder Truths: Go ahead. Let them have their minimum wage. See what happens.

    Then when citizens are laid off more than before because employers do not want to give them this salary, let the same people ask for more increases as the salary is obviously ‘not enough’ for locals.

    Meanwhile is anyone wondering why FT group is getting bigger and bigger?

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  • oxygen:

    @ Harder Truth

    Have you heard of this “folksy wisdom” yet – my family needs two cars.

    I am clueless of what is the upkeep costs of two cars in any family in LEE-jiapore but I am mind-imploding of comprehending if that costs of JUST ONE vehicle UPKEEP will or will not exceeding $1,300 per month. If it does, I wonder what money is left to buy toilet paper (forget the food eating and the excr*ment that must result therefrom)?

    But I am persuaded of this REAL ECONOMIC WISDOM – not the folksy variety – found in former Trade & Industry Minister, Lim HK when he uttered these words IN 2014.

    Singapore ‘can’t have First World economy, Third World costs’: Lim Hng Kiang

    https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-cant-have-first-world-economy-third-world-costs-lim-hng-kiang

    WHICH I HOPES ADEQUATELY EXPLAINS WHY this formula DOES NOT WORK.

    Population + cheap foreign labor influx (substituting PRODUCTIVITY) = GDP IS A DEAD END ECONOMIC STRATEGY (more like a stupid puppy eating its own sh*t).

    You don’t need a PHD in economics to comprehend this suicidal economic modelling, but just kindergarten level of economic knowledge and comprehension will be sufficient.

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  • Alibaba & the 40 thieves:

    The perverted rich: “If I did not know about God and the wages of sin, would I still go to hell?’

    Priest: “No, not if you didn’t know, but it’s by the measure of your intentions.”

    The rich pervert: “Then why did you explain it to me? We’ve been doing fine until you came along!”

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  • Scared n paralysed:

    This naturally did not go down well with some employees and netizens who may not have realised that many local companies have been propped up with extensive state support and subsidies amid Singapore’s worst recession since independence.

    XXXXX

    IT HAD BEEN LOWERING OUR WAGES, CONTROLLING OUR WAGES,

    FOR DONKEY YEARS,

    SO THAT CEO’s

    GET MILLIONS IN PAYOUTS BONUSES,

    TO INGRAIN into thinking THEMSELVES, as

    NOT ” MEDIOCRE ”

    AS A ‘ ROTREN WOOD’ CLAIMED !!!

    Quote.

    NWC COUNCIL ????

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