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.
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.
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.