Town councils should write minimum wage into cleaning contracts


The comment that caught my eye was one by an Eric Lim: “This is not even half-hearted…” he wrote.

It was exactly my feeling as I read the news story preceding it in Today newspaper, 3 June 2013. Headlined “Wage recommendations have to gain traction: Labour MP“, it reported Member of Parliament  Zainal Sapari (PAP, Pasir Ris-Punggol) saying that the National Wages Council’s (NWC) recommendation that wages for workers earning up to S$1,000 a month be raised by a minimum of S$60 needs to gain acceptance by employers before more can be done to help them.

The recommendation has to “gain traction with employers first before we even consider recommending a larger amount,” the newspaper reported him as saying, while revealing that last year’s recommendation of a S$50 built-in quantum saw only a 30 percent adoption rate among non-unionised companies.

Even this recommendation is less than it looks. As you can calculate from the Consumer Price Indices issued by the Statistics Department, the inflation rate for 2011 over 2010 — which would have been the figures available to the NWC when they were looking at a recommendation for 2012 — was 5.25 percent. This is easily calculated from the index for 2011 (108.2) divided by the index for 2010 (102.8). The $50 increase recommended by the NWC last year didn’t even cover inflation for those earning slightly below $1,000.

For 2012 over 2011, the CPI increase was 4.53 percent. The newly recommended $60 increase is a bit better, but not by much.

Zainal then boasted that the People’s Action Party cared for the low-income earners. According to Today,

People’s Action Party (PAP) town councils, for example, have pledged to work with their cleaning contractors to increase cleaners’ wages according to the NWC’s recommendations.

All 17 cleaning contractors under the 15 PAP town councils have adopted the recommended wage of at least S$1,000 per month for full-time cleaners who have completed the WSQ Perform Cleaning of Public Residential Estate (Manual).

Don’t be fooled so easily.  The critical condition is “for full-time cleaners who have completed the WSQ Perform Cleaning of Public Residential Estate (Manual)”. This is a training course of some sort, but how many workers have been sent to attend the course?

Zainal needs to provide figures about actual implementation if he is to be taken seriously.

I personally know from workers their stories about how their employers refuse to sponsor them for upgrading courses. Even when they are prepared to pay for the courses themselves out of their meagre salaries, employers refuse to give them time off. As you can see, it is the easiest thing in the world for sweet promises to be made by contractors to town councils, but then nothing really happens.

Either the town councils are gullible and neglect monitoring compliance or they are complicit in what is ultimately little more than a public relations exercise. As the comment said, this is not even half-hearted.

Indeed, the government (and this includes opposition-held town councils) should take the lead. They should write into the cleaning contracts, not just performance standards relating to cleaning, but labour standards as well. These should include:

  • Minimum basic salary of $1,000 per month for fulltime workers;
  • Minimum hourly or daily rate for part-time workers corresponding to the minimum basic salary for fulltime workers;
  • Sponsor all employees within a 12-month period (and give fully-paid time off) for the WSQ training course;
  • A contractual promise to abide by the Employment Act, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, the Work Injury Compensation Act and any other related legislation. This would cover such other labour standards as overtime pay, annual leave, ban on receiving kickbacks* from employees, proper medical treatment  in case of injuries, etc.

Kickbacks are a common practice when foreign workers are employed. They take various forms, including:

  • Employers take a cut of the agent’s fee paid by workers to get their jobs;
  • Employers make deductions from employees’ monthly pay, out of all proportion to the real costs, e.g. charging a worker $90 a month for water and electricity when the worker doesn’t even get a single power point of his own in his dorm;
  • Employers demand payment for the ‘privilege’ of renewing a work permit.

All these are illegal, but continue to be rampant because of poor enforcement.

The net effect is that while, on paper, the worker may be getting a certain salary level, in practice, the employer pays less than that.

Breach of any of these terms should mean termination of contract. That’s the only way to make contractors pay heed.

What about monitoring compliance? This is essential, otherwise any effort to write these terms into contract is meaningless.

* * * * *

A good example was set by Apple Computer when it found itself mired in controversy over labour standards at its contractors’ factories in China. There were complaints of excessively long working hours, low pay, poor living conditions and even child labour. After an initial attempt to deny or ward off these accusations, Apple engaged an independent non-governmental organisation (NGO) to inspect and audit its contractors’ workplaces, dormitories, etc.

Apple has announced that, at its request, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) will begin special, voluntary inspections of Apple’s final assembly suppliers, among them Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China.

The FLA describes itself as “a collaborative effort of socially responsible companies, colleges and universities and civil society organisations to improve working conditions in factories around the world”.

Apple said that a team of labour rights experts, under the leadership of FLA president Auret van Heerden, began inspections on Monday in Shenzen at Foxconn City. Apple says that FLA will interview thousands of employees about both working and living conditions, touching on topics like health and safety, compensation, working hours, and management communication.

Apple says that FLA will inspect not just manufacturing areas, but also dormitories and other facilities. FLA will also review documentation for procedures at all stages of the employment process.

Source:, 3 Feb 2012.

Town councils should do likewise: hire NGOs to audit their contractors. Contracts with cleaning contractors should stipulate that the town council’s nominated NGO should have access to interview workers in private, inspect their dormitories and work places, and review employment documents. They should also stipulate that the same terms be incorporated into any contractor’s subcontracts.

By the way, the term NGO should be used with care. There is a tendency in Singapore for the government to organise its own subservient “NGOs” to displace independent NGOs, the same way they have the government-run NTUC  displacing independent unions. I don’t call those creatures NGOs; I call them “gongos” (government-organised NGOs), a term that should be spoken with a slur deserved by all imposters. Credibility of any audit depends very much on the independence of the auditor. That is why NGOs can never be convincingly replaced by gongos.

Zainal cannot really say that the government is taking the lead until town councils write labour standards into contracts and engage independent third parties to assess compliance. And only then will we have the momentum to push shopping mall and industrial building owners to do the same with their cleaning contracts, followed by shipyards and project developers doing the same with their marine and construction subcontractors.

Otherwise, year after year, we’re going to see meaningless recommendations by the NWC with little take-up.

20 Responses to “Town councils should write minimum wage into cleaning contracts”

  1. 1 Duh 4 June 2013 at 16:37

    Notice the difference here between the way PAP implemented the Population White Paper and the new Media Act – they literally muscled these through without any consultation with the people. On the other hand, the implementation of increasing wages for low wage earners was to attempt to ‘persuade’ employers to adopt it.

    Notice the kid’s glove handling of employers versus the hard nosed ‘shafting down the throat’ method of controlling the population.

    It is very clear that the PAP is on the employer’s side and hence the neutering of the labour union.

  2. 2 George 4 June 2013 at 16:41

    Hi Alex,
    Good to hear and read your blog again, after your brief sojourn no doubt for a good reason.

    I like that word ‘gongos’ (for govt-organised NGOs) that you have just coined in your post! As in ‘gong-kias’ in Hokkien) Henceforth, the online community has an apt acronym when referring to such govt moles, in our midst.

    To name two of such gongos in existence would be CASE the consumers’ association and the AAS ( Automobile Association of Singapore). They have been ‘transformed’ into gongos by the infiltration of govt lackeys and acolytes because they can be potential pressure groups of people to challenge unpopular and self-serving policies (or the lack of it) of the govt.

    There should be a constant exercise to name and identify such organizations in our midst.

  3. 8 Thor 4 June 2013 at 20:55

    If you dig further into the past, many of the uncles and aunties used to be directly employed by the government in its various forms for examples in schools and other organizations. However, somebody high up had the bright idea of saving cost and sub- contracting the cleaning. The proverbial rooster has come home to roost. The only language PAP understands and it’s primary mode of governance is through money. Just look at all their policies and this becomes apparent.

  4. 9 lmk 5 June 2013 at 00:01

    Hi Alex,

    I wholly support your recommendation for town council contracts to include clauses related to improving labour standards for all their subcontracted workers.

    Just wanted to point out, regarding your example of Apple and FLA, that there have been criticisms of FLA and its ‘independence’ (

    The ‘social auditing’ or compliance industry is now big business but it is hugely problematic (this report, Responsibility Outsourced,, details them).

    Also, just thinking that the imperative for town councils to ‘save costs’ – and how those who find the ‘best deals’ are assessed positively – will likely squeeze those lower in the supply chain, so that might need to be addressed too.

  5. 10 Clear eyed 5 June 2013 at 01:41

    The PAP is not concerned in the least about the low income workers and is not interested at all in raising their wages. PAPies respect and worship money and those who have little or no money can die for all they care. One PAPy had proclaimed that dignity is measured by how much you earn (or how much money you have, I presume).

  6. 11 xavi 5 June 2013 at 03:11

    MOM calls up maids who have been a couple of months or so in the job and speaks to them without their employer present. It asks them about their work conditions, meals, salary and such. Great move, but…

    If you were a new maid, would you reveal you were being ill-treated? After all, who knows how your employer might react if chided by MOM. And what would happen if your upset employer decided they would send you home because you spilt the beans? How would you pay your agent the 8 months salary you owe him for getting you the job, and how would you support your family back home?

    I had a chat with the postman today, as he was delivering mail at around 9ish pm. He’s been a mailman 27 years, and his pay hasn’t changed for years… No wonder, the post office is so short of people to deliver. What to do, he said. My kids haven’t finished their education yet. Oh dear, I forgot to point out he could become a crane operator instead. I’m told it pays well.

    The low-wage worker here is ignored. Trouble is, this country would still function well without a prime minister and without ministers. But if there were no cleaners, there’d be huge problems. So who deserves the higher pay?

    • 12 Lye Khuen Way 5 June 2013 at 13:45

      I agree that this place will still grind on Without a Prime Minister. In fact, there are at least 3 more Ministers who can disappear overnight and we would not have any hiccups. Save plenty to add to the already huge Budget surplus, I may add, no ?

    • 13 Saycheese 6 June 2013 at 03:04

      Ministers deserve the higher pay. They ensure that meritocracy is maintained for their benefit.

      Cleaners are cleaners because they have no merit otherwise they would have been ministers.

      Remember, you cannot eat your degrees and we need more hawkers but do you see Ho Jinx’s brother-in-law selling F&N Orange at the hawker center? LOL

  7. 14 cy 5 June 2013 at 12:44

    but this requires contract cost increase,which implies that town councils will raise conservancy fees. are the residents willing to pay more?

    • 15 eremarf 8 June 2013 at 20:19

      I would be more than willing to pay more if I know it’s being spent on providing a living wage to cleaners. I would in fact be proud to be in a Town Council doing the right thing by Singaporeans.

      It’s really bizarre that in Singapore its our government (instead of private business) that is undermining the public interest.

      I read American blogs and sites, and what’s happening there is that big business tries to exploit workers, the environment, everything basically, as much as possible (e.g. Walmart paying workers so little that they can’t feed and care for themselves and families, and end up on food stamps, on public subsidized healthcare – which means Walmart has externalized the cost of doing business, which cost then falls on the taxpayer; or businesses pollute the environment, e.g. oil spills, but don’t pay the full cost of clean-up, and again its the public which has to foot the bill and live with the consequences).

      But here, our own civil service, or quasi-govvie things like GLCs (think SMRT, Singtel, etc) are doing this to us (depressing local wages, denying locals employment opportunities with repercussions on long-term skills development, maximizing revenue instead of providing merit goods, etc). (Well, to be fair, the government does provide some merit goods, e.g. infocomm infrastructure, good roads, but by and large I think we under-provide. Most people would be better served by better public transport, better educations, better healthcare, than by fast internet connections or well-paved roads. I do think our government is too business-focused, rather than people-focused, and too short-term in outlook. Pay-offs on education and healthcare spending do take quite long to realize.)

      I think Singaporeans have to think collectively, have a collective identity, take collective action. When (political parties in charge of) Town Councils fear to raise S&C charges to pay a fair wage to labour, to develop workers’ skills, etc, it reveals the ugliness of Singaporeans: we value our own pockets more than building a resilient society for our fellow countrymen.

    • 16 Anon BDsW 9 June 2013 at 04:21

      I don’t think an organisation will always plan to pass on cost increases to their customers.

      For example, SMRT has publicly pledged not to seek an increase in bus fares to cover the cost of giving their bus drivers a pay rise in the aftermath of the drivers’ strike last year.

      So I don’t think we can safely assume that Town Councils will not try to find ways to deal with cost increases, other than ask residents to stump up.

      And for all you know, residents may actually support a reasonable increase in charges if they know that the extra goes towards giving the cleaners a more equitable wage.

      I do think people are sometimes able to appreciate the work of the cleaners.

  8. 17 The 5 June 2013 at 17:17

    Uniquely Singapore — Ministers have minimum wage of at least a million bucks, but low-income workers have no minimum wage.

    • 18 Duh 8 June 2013 at 00:13

      Oh no, you got it wrong – what is uniquely Singapore is that the Ministers decide their pay THEMSELVES bcos they hold the majority of seats in Parliament.

      It’s like.. “Oh I think we should be paid a million dollars… Oh okay, it’s decide then, we’ll pass this in the next parliament” *poof* that is their salary the next month.

      Won’t it be great if every Singaporean could do that? I mean go to our bosses to determine what our salaries should be like our PAP MPs? Afterall, our MPs are our role models in white.

  9. 19 passerby 11 June 2013 at 16:23

    Well, all cleaning firms are set to be licensed next year, and the progressive wage model is supposed to be a requirement. Which, in effect, sets a $1,000 minimum wage for the industry anyway.

  10. 20 HowTrueIsThat 15 June 2013 at 08:36

    Singaporeans are the first to ask for minimum wage for themselves and the first to reject it when it comes to paying their maids or their cleaners… I guess Singaporeans have the system they deserve.

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