SINGAPORE: Expanding the progressive wage model (PWM) to more sectors as well as giving those in essential services higher payouts under an income supplement scheme were among the suggestions made by Members of Parliament (MPs) from the People’s Action Party (PAP) on Tuesday (Sep 1).
Support for local workers remained a recurring topic on the second day of the debate on the President’s Address.
Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon called for the PWM to be expanded at a faster pace and made universal to all sectors eventually to protect more workers from stagnating wages.
The PWM refers to “wage ladders” designed to raise the salaries of low-wage workers through skills upgrading and improvements to productivity. It was first implemented in the cleaning sector in 2015, before being expanded to the security and landscaping sectors in the following year.
While wages of the 78,000 workers in these three sectors have gone up by about 30 per cent from 2013 to 2018, the number of workers represents just 15 per cent of those in the lowest 20th percentile of salary ranges, said Dr Koh, who is also deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
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The PWM will kick in for the lifts and escalator maintenance sector in 2022, and discussions are under way on how to implement the model in the waste management sector. Still, Dr Koh said that more can be done.
“Over the last few years, SkillsFuture Singapore has comprehensively mapped out the skills framework for many job roles. Leveraging on these skills ladders, we should now move towards universal PWM across all lower paying job roles.”
The Government “must be prepared to use more regulatory levers to widely implement” the model, Dr Koh said, adding that it is clear that waiting for the market to respond on its own will not produce results.
A sectoral wage benchmark could be explored as a first step for sectors where there are currently no regulatory levers to mandate a PWM, he suggested, adding that this can be done through leveraging various data sources such as the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) occupational wage survey.
In sectors with “a more variegated employment landscape” such as food services and retail, such benchmarks may also help to “catalyse more companies to embark on uplifting the livelihoods of low-wage workers”, he said.
Dr Koh acknowledged that while it may not be the best time to raise wages during a global health and economic crisis, authorities should start looking into the matter.
"I hope tripartite partners can come together now to conduct an in-depth study on the universal implementation of PWM across more sectors, so that we can move faster in this aspect when the economy recovers post-COVID-19," he said.
“If we truly want to build a more inclusive society and narrow the income gap, the pace of PWM implementation across more sectors must quicken.”
Dr Koh also stressed the importance of strengthening the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) scheme so that earnings of the low-wage workers can keep pace with the rise in the cost of living.
The scheme was recently enhanced, with the qualifying income raised to S$2,300 a month and the maximum payout increased to S$4,000 a year, allowing more low-wage workers to “experience strong, real wage growth”, he said.
Marine Parade GRC MP Mohd Fahmi Aliman, who is also an NTUC director, urged the Government to consider providing a higher WIS payout to workers in the essential services to “acknowledge their social value”.
Many of these workers have "bravely stepped up" and continued their work as frontliners during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, adding that without their hard work, Singapore would have come to a complete standstill.
“This pandemic has made us re-think the social value of many jobs that society has not always viewed as important such as cleaners, security officers, waste management workers, and building maintenance personnel,” added the first-time MP, who noted the support given to these workers so far.
While more essential workers will be eligible for the Workfare Special Payment - a recently announced S$3,000 cash payout for lower-income workers - many of them also have their incomes and retirement funds supplemented by the WIS.
"While this effort should be applauded, let us not rest on our laurels and continue to work to enhance the WIS scheme to benefit more workers and their families and strengthen our social security net,” he said.
Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng, who also spoke in support of frontline workers, asked if there can be more Singaporean healthcare workers in the public hospitals.
“Can I ask the Government, how often does MOH compare the pay of our nurses and allied healthcare workers across the public and private sector? Can we pay our nurses and allied health workers more?” he said.
JOBS HELP FOR YOUNG, OLDER SINGAPOREANS
MPs also spoke up for young Singaporeans who may need help finding jobs.
Tampines GRC MP Desmond Choo, who is the assistant secretary-general of NTUC, said younger Singaporeans venturing out to the job market at this time are “confronted with the most difficult of financial and social circumstances”.
“Because COVID-19- induced recession is unprecedented in scale, depth and duration, we might reasonably expect the negative impact to last longer. This makes improving job mobility paramount,” he said.
"We have to invest significantly to safeguard the future of the COVID-19 generation of young Singaporeans."
Mr Choo suggested giving loan repayment relief to students from private education institutions, encouraging companies to convert traineeships into permanent positions, as well as giving subsidies or loans to those who want to stay in, or return to school.
MacPherson SMC MP Tin Pei Ling highlighted that young people today may face many disruptions in their lifetime, and asked how the Government might meet their aspirations.
“This Government has to weigh the different interests, hear the people, and find balanced solutions that care for the older generations, while creating space for the younger generations to shape this nation into one that they can be proud to call home,” she said.
One of the many MPs to speak out for Singaporeans who feel the heat from foreign workers, Ms Tin said that the Government should formulate a plan to help young adults in Singapore’s workforce to take on potential leadership positions, beyond arming them with academic qualifications and technical skills.
“If we can find a way to cultivate a critical mass of Singaporean talents who not only are technically skilled but also with leadership skills and acumen, the ecosystem will be so much healthier and competitive,” she said.
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Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How focused his speech on older workers and the challenges they might face as more companies shed workers.
The deputy secretary-general of NTUC warned against age-based retrenchment and hiring, and said that older workers who were let go from their jobs will have a harder time finding new work.
“For mature workers who are displaced, or who face severe wage cuts, the journey ahead will be tough as they seek to provide for themselves and meet family commitments,” he said, urging the Ministry of Social and Family Development to consider a second tranche of the COVID-19 Support Grant and the Temporary Relief Fund to provide some relief to displaced workers.
MP Joan Pereira asked for more social assistance, including family counselling, for the sandwiched class.
“I hope the MOM can work with the Ministry of Social and Family Development to be alerted in the event of any job termination. We could proactively send materials to employees and families affected or contact them, checking if they need help to tide them over difficult periods,” she said.
HELP FOR SELF-EMPLOYED AND OTHERS
Other topics raised on Tuesday include whether enough help is given to those who are self employed.
Nee Soon GRC MP Derrick Goh noted feedback from residents who perceive the Self-Employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) as being unfair, adding that some do not fully understand the basis of why their applications were rejected.
The first-time MP cited the example of authorities using the value of housing as a criteria. As a result, some are unable to qualify for SIRS as eligibility is tied to the annual value of the homes they live in.
While the use of “means-testing” to identify those who need help is logical, Mr Goh said it could be a “blunt tool” given that COVID-19 relief “isn’t a normal government scheme”.
"It needs to be recognised that it will exclude residents whom the relief measure was intended to help," he said.
"Additional data points could have been used proactively to identify those falling in the 'should help' category so that a portion of this relief measure could be considered, given this challenging period."
Meanwhile in a speech focused on Singapore's foreign manpower policy, Bukit Panjang SMC MP Liang Eng Hwa asked how Singapore can reduce its dependence on foreign labour in jobs that are unwanted by locals.
Construction is one area, he noted. Apart from changing the tender system for public construction projects to emphasise more on productive building methods, he also asked if there’s a need for the Changi Airport T5 project to go ahead.
Mr Liang noted a new operating landscape where air travel will be much reduced in a post-pandemic world, while airlines may consolidate and "hub" at cheaper locations.
“Are our assumptions and parameters still valid in the new permanently changed setting? Are the risks now too high to go ahead with this massive investment?" he asked.
“Can we work within our existing four terminals, regenerate new value propositions and optimise with what we already have instead? We can perhaps still go ahead with the new runway but do we need another terminal building?"
Mr Liang said he hopes the Government will review its decision because such mega projects “consume high numbers of migrant workers and crowd out the more urgent demand by other construction projects”.