It is clearly something that Singaporeans feel passionately about, judging by comments on social media platforms.
This is partly because even for those of us who belong to the broad middle-class, the high cost of living coupled with our expectations of what a good life is, is a strain.
Amid these concerns, one group that remains relatively quiet is workers at and below the 20th percentile.
Labour Member of Parliament Zainal Sapari who has been raising the plight of these workers for many years now, has referred to them as the “voiceless”.
READ: Zainal Sapari's commentary on 'slavery of the poor'.
Many are not in a position to bargain or complain because they might lack skills and have very few employment options.
One could then say that it’s really up to them to acquire skills and increase their options.
Certainly, that should be one of the goals.
However, considering that blue-collar manpower is still a need and many of these workers perform valuable jobs such as cleaning our estates and offices, or work as security guards in the places we play and work at, there is a need to ensure that Singaporeans who choose these options are not shortchanged.
Mr Zainal is a proponent of the Progressive Wage Model, a productivity-based wage progression pathway that helps to increase wages of workers through upgrading their skills and improving their productivity. It’s mandatory for workers providing mostly outsourced services in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors.
As a result of this scheme, the wages and skills of thousands of low-income workers have improved over the years.
The skills improvements no doubt are also aimed at engendering pride in their professions and to give workers a sense of career progression.
In terms of salaries, since 2012, the wages of workers at the 20th percentile have seen the largest increase.
However, Mr Zainal feels more needs to be done as, even today, outsourced workers could see their salaries stagnate during their contractual service which can last more than two years.
Even if they do get a raise, this could be reset once the contract ends and a new one begins, and this often has to do with businesses having to lower the prices of their services in order to win contracts.
While acknowledging the improvements, Mr Zainal who, in the past, has even called out government agencies on cheap sourcing practices, said “we cannot expect to get better results if we keep on doing the same things”.
IS THERE ROOM FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY?
Importantly, Mr Zainal said that companies should live up to a sense of social responsibility by being fair and treating their employees, especially rank-and-file workers, better.
Businesses often say it is a challenge to operate in a high-cost environment like Singapore.
Even labour costs seem relatively high considering the relatively low prices of certain goods and services.
We would do well to consider if all these difficulties are leading to capitalist exploitation that seems to have become acceptable and even expected.
If so, should we really accept this state of affairs as an inevitability?
Are we uncomfortable enough with the inherent injustice to rethink the ways we consume goods and services and conduct business?
Amid the concerns over dollars and cents, is there any room for a sense of social responsibility?
DOES IT START WITH THE CONSUMER?
With the Progressive Wage Model, some businesses are reporting desirable effects – higher productivity leads to improved profits for businesses and better wages for workers. Service buyers also experience better standards and quality.
It looks like a virtuous cycle but what does it take to make it work?
Dr Goh Wei Leong co-founder of HealthServe, a healthcare charity for migrant workers, in a recent edition of On the Record pointed out that it often starts with the consumer.
You can’t blame the poor employers. They are really responding to a much deep-seated cultural framework we have here.
“Many of us notice the poor treatment of the people doing menial work, cleaners or construction workers, be it Singaporeans or non-Singaporeans, when we say: ‘Let’s give them more pay. Let’s look into equity.’ While we are shouting out loud, advocating for them, are we ourselves willing to fork out a little more for cleaning services? Pay more for our buildings? Pay more for our conservancy, our monthly cleaning. We need to make that sacrifice. I think if all of us sacrifice a bit, it would make such a difference to the poor,” he said.
He explained that for some small businesses, even paying for the medical treatment of one migrant worker could bankrupt them as they are not able to afford adequate insurance.
Statements that call for consumers to pay more often provoke the ire of Singaporeans who feel they are already stretched thin by the high cost of living in Singapore.
Any mitigation to the cost of living would certainly be welcomed, but considering the circumstances we live in today, taking a step back and considering how fulfilling our needs and wants could impact others in society is warranted.
Some point out that more expensive goods and services may also end up hurting the very group of workers they are meant to help.
This is why there needs to be careful calibration and tiers of services and goods.
Redistribution efforts might still remain necessary but hopefully to a lesser degree.
There is another dimension to this in that businesses could be charging more for products and services without passing on the profits to their workers.
Dr Goh maintains that consumers can play a role in influencing businesses in this case as well.
“If consumers are able to demand ethical recruitment, ethical products, businesses would be forced to be ethical. If I demand that the businessman pay fair wages, then I must be willing to not patronise his establishment if he’s found not to have ethical practices. The consumers themselves have a lot of influence and I think we have to exercise that influence for good,” he said.
As a start though, some have suggested financial incentives for businesses that are able to show ethical treatment of workers.
Dr Goh suggested tax breaks.
Mr Zainal mentioned introducing new policies that focus on encouraging and incentivising companies to have a good work culture.
Studies have shown that a positive work culture can have tremendous benefits for businesses. Engendering such a work culture, no doubt, involves fair treatment and pay.
It is in all our interests to see businesses and the economy thrive. After all, if they didn’t, the natural consequence would be high levels of unemployment.
But is there a balance that can be struck to ensure that while businesses thrive, those working for them do too?
Some feel that our focus on efficiency often derails such efforts, which may only see results in the medium to long-term.
Dr Goh said it best in our interview:
Efficiency is getting from point A to point B, cheapest, fastest. But we should focus on being efficacious instead. This means that we take a longer route to get there but we are more human.
For example, we have better work conditions, workers are treated well, employers are happy. At the end, you may have some tradeoffs – spending more money, taking more time, building relationships, having to learn how to live in shared spaces, learning how to share. But I think it’s more efficacious.
BEYOND DOLLARS AND CENTS
Many would say it is natural in a capitalist society for money to be the measure of everything.
But instead of using this as justification to pay certain workers low wages, perhaps we need to step back to fairly measure the true value of the work that they do, taking into account productivity efforts and professionalism.
How does their work contribute to our well-being as individuals and as a nation?
How much is it worth in dollars and cents?
Indeed, they should not be seen as charities we have to contribute to, but if we thought about this more deeply, I imagine many of us would admit it is certainly more than what many of these workers get paid today.
Let us not forget that capitalist societies also obviously constitute human beings, so we should think about how humanity fits into this equation.
Can we, while fighting for progression, dignity and fairness for ourselves, do the same for others in our midst?
Can we find it in ourselves to make the necessary adjustments to our demands and expectations in order to ensure progression, dignity and fairness for them, both in terms of the meaningfulness of their capabilities and the services they provide, and how they are compensated for these efforts?
As government, consumers and businesses, let us demand a more conscious brand of capitalism from both ourselves and others.
Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.