Some low-wage workers working like ‘slaves’, says labour MP

Singapore's gleaming and  prosperous financial district. — Reuters pic
Singapore's gleaming and prosperous financial district. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, Feb 15 — Calling on the Government not to reduce employers’ Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions for older workers and a mandatory 13th month bonus for low-wage workers among other proposals, a Member of Parliament has likened the plight of some vulnerable low-income earners as “slavery of the poor”.

Writing on the labour movement’s blog yesterday, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Member of Parliament Zainal Sapari, who is also assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), said: “Trapped by the need to make a living for themselves and their families, these workers are prone to be shackled in servitude to the masters who control them, all because of the very limited jobs they can undertake given their age and skills. When the circumstances of being poor force you to ‘work till you die’, that means you have become beholden to those circumstances — a form of slavery in itself.”

Speaking to TODAY, Zainal said his choice of words was partly meant to draw attention to the situation and raise public awareness. Reiterating the sense of helplessness felt by low-wage workers, he said: “Some of these workers, they don’t have much of a choice. You look at the cleaners, sometimes that is the only job which they can do and because that is the only option they have, they unfortunately have to take what is given to them, they are not in any bargaining position.”

This was not the first time that Zainal had used “slavery” to describe the working conditions of some in Singapore.

During the Budget debate in 2012, he cited the practice of cheap sourcing had encouraged service providers to lower their prices in order to win the tender. This resulted in the salaries of the low-wage workers being cut, and such “gross injustice and slavery of the poor must stop”, he added.

On another occasion, he wrote in a January 2016 blog post that he was shocked to learn that cleaners at that time were paid S$600 (RM1,778.41) a month, the same amount which his father got more than 35 years ago.

“To me, this amounted to slavery of the most vulnerable and it must end,” he said.

Since then, the situation has improved: Under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for the cleaning sector, more than 40,000 cleaners would receive annual adjustments to their basic salary between 2017 and 2019, for a total increase of S$200.

Zainal had chaired a tripartite cluster behind the recommendations which were subsequently accepted by the Government.

In his latest blog post, Zainal acknowledged that “bold steps” have been taken to help low wage workers, such as the PWM and Workfare Income Supplement. But more can be done to ensure the retirement adequacy for this group, he said.

He suggested doing away with the practice of decreasing employer’s CPF contribution rates for workers above 55. Instead, there should be a universal rate until employees turn 65.

“This would help workers build their retirement savings, and would be especially beneficial for low-wage workers,” he said.

Citing how 42 per cent of active CPF members aged 55 did not meet the Basic Retirement Sum in 2016, Zainal called for the setting up of a committee to review employer’s CPF contributions for older workers.

He also proposed that the Government makes it mandatory for all employers to give low-wage workers an Annual Wage Supplement (AWS) or 13th month bonus.

“Many companies are denying workers their AWS as a means of cutting cost to remain competitive; and this is rampant in companies providing outsourced services such as cleaning, security and landscape,” he said.

While all cleaners would receive a mandatory two weeks’ bonus from 2020, he said efforts to introduce similar bonuses in the security industry were met with resistance from many employers.

“Denying low-wage workers the 13th month bonus is a manifestation of the prevalent exploitation of this vulnerable lot by their employers,” he said.

A mandatory AWS will boost this group’s salaries by about 8.3 per cent, and help narrow the income gap, he added.

Zainal also suggested amending the Employment Act to include better medical coverage at the workplace, such as getting employers to pay for workers’ outpatient treatment at polyclinics.

The Act does not require employers to do so even though 86 per cent of them offer outpatient benefits voluntarily.

Zainal pointed out that many low-wage workers in the outsourced industries receive very basic statutory benefits under the Act.

While the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) allows the lower-income earners to access subsidised outpatient medical and dental care at private general practitioners and dental clinics, “the fact remains that employers can treat their workers better”.

“They say poverty is not by choice, but a reflection of society; and I fully agree. It is our responsibility to work together to become a better society – one that is inclusive, and one that ensures there is no slavery of the poor,” Zainal added.— TODAY

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