Low-Wage Jobs – Necessary for Singapore’s Economy

By Durga Elamaran

A recent cleaners’ strike in far-away England, triggered by low wages and even poorer working conditions, has brought the plight of this invisible army to the fore as rubbish bins overflowed and the smell of sewage accumulated.

Even as we continue to enjoy the peace and stability here in Singapore, we should all be reminded of the vital role that low-wage workers play, even in first world economies.

Significance of Low-Wage Workers
Engineers and architects may conceptualise grand infrastructure designs, but who makes their sketches come alive? Construction workers, that’s who – the same construction workers we may look down upon. Without low-wage workers, we probably wouldn’t to be able to enjoy (relatively) low-cost delicious food, a green and clean environment or even secure workplaces.

To put it simply, low-wage workers have played and will continue to play an important role in shaping Singapore. Many of these jobs are taken up by not individuals with lower educational qualifications, but also by foreign workers – if local employees are not willing to take up low-wage positions, then who will?

The Wage Bell-Curve
After all, not everyone can be a high-earning white-collar professional. Like it or not, many low-wage workers are required to fill positions in the cleaning and construction sectors, areas where few local employees would be caught dead in (“low-skilled” and “dirty” are just a few of the epithets that spring to mind).

In addition to this social stigma, the relatively high cost of living in Singapore means that a low-wage employee’s salary is often seen as being insufficient to support a family. As unpopular as it may seem, foreign workers are thus a doubly convenient alternative for companies looking to fill low-wage positions.

Addressing the Low-Wage Issue
To combat this trend, here is a need for Singapore employers to prove that low-wage jobs are seen as a viable career option, especially when considering the competition from foreign workers. From June this year, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has introduced its Progressive Wage Model (PWM) to help workers in different sectors achieve sustainable salary increases through the tailoring of wage ladders catered for each job sector.

The cleaning sector in Singapore is one main target of the PWM, which aims to help cleaners earn progressively higher wages via skills upgrading and structured career advancement, among other industry measures. Cleaning firms adopting the PWM are granted accreditation under the National Environment Agency’s Enhanced Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme, which qualifies them to secure government contracts.

Such efforts will make certain that cleaners, who form a significant proportion of low-wage workers, are at least treated fairly in the workplace and are provided with a fair monthly salary. NTUC and its tripartite partners hope to extend this scheme to other sectors, which include private security.

In a nutshell, even a first-world country requires jobs that will always be considered low-wage, especially when compared against the majority of available positions. Nevertheless, these low-wage positions should certainly not be subject to social stigma, even if they are not financially lucrative. After all, if no one would take up these low-wage positions, the Singapore we know today simply could not exist.


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