Sakae Sushi’s $3,000 cleaner-and-dishwasher job has many of the characteristics of poor human resources design so prevalent in Singapore. Even if they manage to fill the ten positions that the company has, I suspect it is not a sustainable solution. Employees will not stay long or will call in sick with little notice, causing disruption to operations. Singapore bosses often pin blame on employees’ poor work attitude but few bosses interrogate their own attitudes towards their staff and their own limitations when it comes to designing jobs.
From various press reports, Sakae Sushi’s job — which apparently has received 300 enquiries since it was headlined in a Chinese newspaper story — is like this:
Yesterday, the company gave more details while urging only “serious” applicants to contact it. “We would like to emphasise that this position includes other cleaning responsibilities, not just dishwashing, and is very physically demanding,” it said in a Facebook post.
Brand and communications manager Gregg Lewis said the dishwashers need to work 12 hours a day, six days a week – from 10.30am to 10.30pm with breaks. This differed slightly from the nine hours a day that Sakae Sushi chief Douglas Foo had told the media previously.
— Straits Times, 14 Sept 2012, $3k a month to wash dishes? They want the job, by Goh Chin Lian
Earlier, Douglas Foo had mentioned that the $3,000 package includes overtime pay for the extra hours. One presumes that the employer’s Central Provident Fund contribution is on top of that.
Some online comments have queried if the total hours contravene the Employment Act. Foo said they do not. Taking him at his word, I did some back-of-the envelope calculations, and found that the only way the job would fit within the maximum hours permitted by the law would be if the employee, despite having to be on station for 12 hours a day, six days a week, gets about two hours of breaks each workday — perhaps an hour-long meal break and two half-hour tea breaks. His net working duration would be ten hours a day.
As you can see from the calculation above, after deducting the 44 normal-pay hours per week as provided for in the Employment Act, the balance 69.6 hours a month would be considered overtime hours, a shade beneath the legal maximum of 72 overtime hours a month.
This works out to a basic salary of $1,941 a month (for the 44 hours) which looks quite good for a cleaner-and-dishwasher position, by today’s standards. However, as I will argue below, it may not be long before we consider this below par.
However, what mystifies me is why the company thinks this is the best design they can come up with. When they design a job that is so physically demanding, they immediately reduce the pool of available candidates. How many people would take a job that means wet hands and being on one’s feet almost 12 hours a day? The job is also destructive of a person’s social life and emotional wellbeing by being so demanding of his time.
Has the company invested in dish-washing machines? The absence of any mention of such equipment in its public communications seems to suggest not, and that it wants its employees to wash dishes the old-fashioned way. [Correction: I see from a video of the Chinese program on which Foo appeared that he described the job as one of scraping off food from chinaware and putting the plates and bowls into dishwashing machines. ]
Moreover, why has it not considered splitting each job into two? It would mean hiring two workers each grossing 36 hours a week, at perhaps $1,500 a month. Wouldn’t that be more attractive?
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The Sakae Sushi news story gained traction because it tapped into a wider sense that some jobs are paying too little. This “too little” argument actually has two flavours. One is that, given our cost of living, it is morally troubling that any worker, local or foreign, should be paid less than a “living wage”, but I don’t think this is the sense at work here.
The other, quite different flavour, is that wages for this kind of job need to rise substantially to attract Singaporeans to them. It may be quite alright to pay foreigners such low wages, but if we have to attract Singaporeans, significantly higher pay is necessary. This issue comes up as the government, in response to cries that there are too many foreigners in Singapore, tightens quotas for foreign employees in various industries.
Despite being very vocal about the increasing numbers of foreign workers in our midst and clamouring for a reduction, Singaporeans are slow to see the implications of that — which is that costs must necessarily rise.
Foreign workers are particularly numerous in jobs that are menial or require a lot of personal human attention, largely a result of the fact that Singaporeans shun jobs in construction, domestic work, retail, food service and sanitation. Even the healthcare and hospitality industries are finding it hard to recruit locals. Automating these service jobs may go some way to reducing the needed numbers, but let’s face it, it is very hard to do. The only way we’re going to have significantly reduced numbers of such foreign workers in our midst is if we pay enough to entice Singaporeans to them. In fact, we may anyway need to pay more to keep attracting foreigners, when their own countries begin to develop and they find more job opportunities at home.
Our ideas of “job’s worth” is probably out of date. We need to start thinking of any work that involves human attention as being a high-cost one. Your ten-minute $10 haircut will need to be around $20. A restaurant with table service will need to add $30 more to the tab per diner to cover the cost of wait staff. Even a food court that has busboys to clear your tables may perhaps need to charge $5 entry — before you even pay for your food — to cover the cost of the busboys. Plumbers? Electricians? Perhaps $100 per hour.
And the whole concept of live-in domestic maids is fit for the dustbin of history. Singaporeans should start imagining having to pay $1,200 – $1,500 a month for a household help who comes in 8 hours a day for 6 days a week.
There is nothing absolute about any job’s worth. It’s all a matter of supply and demand.
What it means is that sit-down jobs or high-status jobs that Singaporeans prize will lose relative market value. Salaries may not fall, but a bigger and bigger portion of salaries will have to be expended to buy human-attention services such as domestic help, food catering, cleaning of the estate, renovation, manicure and clothes alteration, and leaving us feeling poorer (unless we’re the ones doing those jobs). Our idea about the hierarchy of jobs by value will have to change. If you want to earn big bucks, stop chasing an academic qualification; work with your hands.
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Several trends have contributed to the present state of affairs where we have over one million low-wage foreign workers in Singapore.
To begin with, any economy (given today’s technology) will surely need workers doing manual or human-attention work, e.g. cleaning, construction, retail. Diagrammatically, I show this group in blue below:
But over the last 20 years, large numbers of foreign talent were brought in to grow the economy (see Diagram 2).
However, these skilled and professional workers and their families created a demand for more low-skill workers. Homes had to be built. More shops and restaurants opened. More cleaning was needed. More hospital beds had to be added. Inevitably, with the growth in the skilled and professional foreign population came growth in the low-skill population too. It was made worse with no attention paid to automation and productivity improvement.
Diagram 3 shows the situation as it is today, a society with a smallish kernel of local workforce, much padded by foreigners at all levels.
Our low birthrate and relatively good education system also meant that we had a particular shortage of young adults willing to do physically demanding work that characterised many low-end jobs. Thus the narrowing of the bottom of the local pyramid in Diagram 3.
We see the result in many situations today: foreigners serving foreigners. Walk into a restaurant, and you may see Filipino waiters taking orders from Australian diners. Look at a condominium building site and you’ll see Indian and Bangladeshi workers building homes that would later be occupied by a new family from Beijing, and cleaned by a domestic worker from Indonesia.
But what the diagrams imply is how difficult it is to reduce our dependence on foreigners. Diagram 2 is unrealistic. Our choice is largely limited to Diagram 1 or 3, with some tweaks through automation and productivity improvement. An aggressive move attempting to revert our society and economy to Diagram 1 will mean a smaller economic output which will have strategic implications. Staying at Diagram 3 on the other hand means a continuing unhappiness with the numbers of foreigners in our midst.
Perhaps the best we can do is to slow down the growth in foreigner numbers and work harder at alleviating infrastructure bottlenecks, so people don’t feel so crowded. But once we start restricting the inflow of foreigners into the human-attention jobs ranging from domestic work to construction to cleaning to food service, costs will rise. The current (abnormal) period of low-cost human services will end. Your relative wealth vis-a-vis these classes of workers will decline. Get used to it.