SINGAPORE: Mr Calvin Lee (not his real name) has chosen a career in the security industry, a move that is considered rather unusual for a Singaporean in his 30s.
A senior security officer, Mr Lee said he enjoys the work and wants to rise in the ranks - but the long working hours are difficult to put up with.
Security officers work some of the longest hours in Singapore, with many agencies having shifts of 12 hours, six days a week. This translates to 95 overtime hours a month, according to the Security Tripartite Cluster that was formed in 2013 to look into a Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for the industry.
After working for a year at a large security agency, Mr Lee switched to being an in-house security officer with shorter hours. However, this came with a pay cut.
“It really was a horrible experience … literally no life,” he said of his time at the security agency. “Twelve hours work, two hours travel back and forth, six hours of sleep. That leaves you four hours a day to eat, shower, (do) laundry and chores, didn't even have time to watch a show.”
The 95 hours of overtime that are typical for a security officer exceed the 72-hour limit a month set out under the Employment Act, although an overtime exemption (OTE) permit can be granted by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
While the permit is a means for companies to respond to emergencies or complete urgent projects on time, security companies have been getting OTEs to meet their operational needs.
NO MORE OVERTIME EXEMPTION
This, however, is set to change.
Three years ago, the Security Tripartite Cluster (STC) recommended removing the OTE for the security industry, as well as increasing basic wages so that the gross pay of security officers does not fall as a result of the shorter number of hours worked. This is slated to start from January 2021.
Despite the impact of COVID-19, the STC reviewed these recommendations two months ago and agreed to push on without delay, it told CNA on Friday (Nov 27) in a joint reply with MOM and Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
As overtime exemptions for the security industry will no longer be issued, the upshot is that security agencies will have to stick to a maximum of 72 hours of overtime a month.
This still means 12-hour shifts, but instead of working six-day weeks, officers will work five days for two weeks of the month, and six days for two weeks of the month.
To ensure that most security officers will not experience a fall in gross wages when the OTE is removed, the PWM stipulates that the basic salary of security officers will rise by S$150, which is double the annual PWM wage increase over the past two years.
From next year, entry-level officers will have to be paid a basic wage of at least S$1,400 and a security supervisor should get a minimum of S$1,785. An officer’s gross monthly pay is usually more than S$2,200 after adding overtime pay and allowances.
"It is necessary for the security industry to take a decisive step to eliminate its reliance on excessive overtime hours," said the STC in a 2017 report when it released its recommendations on removing the OTE.
"The STC strongly urges security agencies to start planning early and to work with their service buyers to review their operations and manpower needs."
Authorities said that the lead time of three years has allowed the industry to increase hiring and adjust its operations and work patterns. The percentage of licensed security agencies that have applied for OTE has decreased from 76 per cent in 2017 to 19 per cent as of October 2020.
“WE RAN ON RED BULL AND COFFEE”
It is a tough industry. Some officers work beyond the stipulated 72 hours a week to earn more.
Several security officers, who all requested anonymity, told CNA that they have worked or have heard of people who have done back-to-back 12-hour shifts.
“When you’re resting, you’re not resting … you feel like you’re locked down - work here and live here. It’s like going to National Service but different,” said a former security officer, who left the industry a few years ago.
“We ran on Red Bull and coffee."
Back when he was in the industry, it was a regular occurrence, he said. He added that he and his colleagues did not mind the long hours, as long as they felt that the salary was good.
“We were short of men ... a lot of them were more than happy to do it because of the lucrative payment,” said the former officer, who also did not want to be named. “They were mostly Malaysians.”
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Mr Jourdan Sabapathy, executive director of the Security Association Singapore (SAS), said there is evidence that there has been an increase in officers doing back-to-back shifts based on feedback from their members.
“We have been advising our agencies and the officers that this is illegal and really should not be continued,” he said.
Mr Steve Tan of the Union of Security Employees (USE) said that the union has been running classified ads to ask officers to come forward if they have grievances or if they know of agencies with illegal practices.
“We have had quite a few tip-offs so far,” he said, adding that they work with MOM to clamp down on such practices.
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MOM said that in addition to enforcement against such violations, it educates companies and workers on their employment obligations and rights through its Workright inspections and roadshows.
As a rule, security agencies cannot deploy their officers to work shifts that exceed 12 hours, but officers can work for up to two employers. While the vast majority of security officers work for only one security agency, some work part-time or on an ad-hoc basis, such as at events.
"Allowing security officers to work for a second employer provides them greater flexibility in their work arrangements," authorities said in an email to CNA.
"For security officers who take on additional assignments, employers must take all practical measures such as scheduling breaks in between shifts to protect the security officer from safety and health risks."
Employers should also have effective fatigue management techniques to detect cases of security officers who may be working longer hours or for multiple employers, MOM, MHA and STC said.
"Security officers also play a part to care for their own safety at work and health by having enough rest.”
CHALLENGES OF CUTTING OVERTIME HOURS
While the impending cap on overtime hours is meant to improve working conditions and attract people to the industry, there are implications for various stakeholders.
For one, it will lead to a greater shortage of security officers in the short term, said industry players.
USE’s Mr Tan acknowledged that there may be officers who will now take on a second job.
“They look for another job to work OT (overtime), which they’re used to, instead of getting more rest, which is our intention,” he said.
With a perennial manpower crunch in the industry, there is no lack of jobs for willing officers to take up.
There is a shortfall of 10,000 to 15,000 full-time officers, noted Mr Sabapathy. While there are about 70,000 to 80,000 licensed security officers, only around 50,000 are active and working full-time.
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Mr Kelvin Goh of Soverus security agency said that he will have to hire more officers and even drop some contracts that will not be profitable.
“Contract prices would have to be high enough to make sure that we can pay for the guards ... I’ll probably slim my company size down a little bit next year just to make sure that we earn enough money to pay the guards,” he said.
“For me, I drop the contracts, but a lot of companies are trying to do it at the same rate or even lower,” he added, calling them “low ballers”.
Ms Morrine Henson, managing director of Alwatch Security Management, said she is happy to pay employees more, but that most buyers are not willing to pay higher prices for security contracts.
“Why are we mandated on the amount that we have to pay our people ... but to advise clients to pay a higher amount to us is considered price-fixing,” she asked.
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Mr Tan said that they have heard many complaints about “low ballers” recently, adding that it is a worrying trend.
“We are very, very concerned. The last thing we want to see is the unintended outcome where we try to tighten conditions … (but) squeeze out all the best security agencies, leaving all these low ballers.”
SLOW ADOPTION OF TECHNOLOGY
The security PWM that was introduced in 2016 has benefitted about 36,000 security officers, authorities said.
Between 2014 and 2019, the real median gross income of security officers grew by 36 per cent from S$1,758 to S$2,391, outstripping the 21 per cent growth in national real median income.
But Mr Tan has seen that buyers are resisting price increases. He thinks that not enough of them are considering alternatives like using technology to ease the manpower crunch.
Some examples of these are visitor management and licence plate recognition systems, robots and smart cameras.
Mr Tan suggested tightening requirements for buyers and providers of security services. For example, buyers should make sure that the human resource standards for the vendor are up to mark, and companies need to be more open about the cost of the services so that buyers have more information with which to assess tenders.
Over time, he thinks the gradual wage increases will push the industry towards greater use of technology, but that process has not been fast enough.
Mr Sabapathy of SAS said that it is a “tricky situation” unless all the stakeholders in the industry cooperate to adopt technology and redesign jobs.
“There are agencies who are willing to take it up, but if the buyers don’t make the first move, it’s very difficult,” he said.
In the meantime, security officers like Mr Lee feel underpaid and overworked.
He said: "It's a job that when something bad happens, the security guards have to stay in the building that is on fire to make sure everyone else gets out first or approach a potentially dangerous person ... if nothing happens people think (the officer) is overpaid but when something does happen they want the best."