by Daniel Yap
The National Wages Council’s (NWC) latest round of recommendations looks rather tame. Not that one would expect some staggering revelation from the NWC, but the only significant change is insignificant – upping the $50 wage increase recommendation for workers earning under $1,000 to $60.
It sounds like another year of pointless pleading for firms to pay their workers right.
Even the mainstream Straits Times reported that the NWC has “come under fire for not having enough clout to ensure that companies accept its recommendations”. Alarm bells should be ringing.
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) reported that eight in 10 unionised companies gave the increase, but as of Dec 2012 only three in 10 non-unionised firms did so. Since non-unionised companies employ about three out of every four workers locally, it seems like NWC’s recommendation really impacted less than half of Singapore’s low-wage workers.
The circumstances around the poor showing make it look even worse: a Wage Credit Scheme is already in place to pay for 40% of those wage increases for three years. Factor in a generally positive market and it seems like many of these employers may just be stingy. The Singapore National Employers Federation has said it was “dicey’’ to link the WCS with the NWC proposal because when the scheme expires, “you cannot take away the wage increase,” as SNEF’s Mr Stephen Lee put it. He described the current take-up rate as “an encouraging start’’!
With NWC showing more bark than bite, it is high time for NTUC to move. It has already voiced its dissatisfaction with the number of non-unionised firms that followed a similar $50 wage increment for low-wage workers proposed by NWC in May last year, and has said before that it would consider legislation to bring low-wage workers’ salaries up if firms were unwilling to adopt the NTUC’s progressive wage model. Labour MP Zainal Sapari appears to be leading that charge. TODAY reported him in its edition today as calling on the Government and business groups to lead the way by negotiating with service providers on how to raise their salaries. Low wage workers, like cleaners (some 62,000 in all) and security guards (about 40,000), are usually working on outsourced contracts. But service providers already have locked in contracts.
Mr Zainal was reported as saying: “Service providers are simple: They can give an increase if there is an increase in contract sum given to them. Without a top up to contract sum, it will be difficult to pay more to their employees.”
NTUC’s progressive wage model also sets the bar higher, rolling out a structure of tiered wages that are linked to skills/roles (and one assumes, productivity).
Still, by far the most interesting comment came from NTUC assistant Secretary-General Cham Hui Fong.
She suggested that because of the tight labour market, those who worked in profitable companies should “walk” if they were not given the $50 pay rise. NTUC also encouraged workers who were denied the pay rise to think about joining unionised companies instead.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. If NTUC wants to expand its influence, it needs to make it much easier for low-wage workers to jump ship and join the union. Low-income workers struggle with cash flow, and a gap between jobs could be disastrous. Job matching schemes and outreach need to be redoubled.
Perhaps, that is why it is holding more carnivals for low income unionised members (numbering about 15,000) this year, as reported in ST and TODAY? It has raised the income ceiling for unionised members to join the carnivals and enjoy freebies. Perhaps, the NTUC thinks this would incentivise non-unionised members to join unions. Sponsorship of the six carnivals amounts to $1.5m.
Question: Could that money have been better spent persuading low-wage workers to join unions, instead of upping the privileges of those already unionised?