Like Feed me to the Fish, I am sick and tired — but unlike him, I’m not sick and tired of being sick and tired. Rather, I’m sick and tired of the discussion on wages: minimum wage, whether to skyrocket the pay of those earning below $1.5K and the cascading effect of such a move, how to raise productivity to cover the higher wages et el.
But frankly, how could a toilet cleaner be more productive, especially if he is old and shaky? If his pay goes up 50 per cent, would he have to clean 12 toilets instead of his daily 8 to give the higher productivity to match his wage increase?
If he can do that, isn’t it not so much as higher productivity as he’s doing more work and so should be paid more?
How can he match someone who is willing to clean 12 toilets for the price of 8, thereby undercutting him by 50% and so make the original cleaner redundant and jobless?
Won’t a better way to get better pay for lowly paid workers going forward is to teach each how to make himself irreplaceable — or at least make it more costly for employers to choose the alternative?
Take my very own personal example.
When my mum’s Picky Siti joined our household in March 2008, she was paid $330 per monty with no days off. But because she was a good worker with quite a bit of brain cells, it wasn’t long before her effective monthly pay was closer to $400 than her contractual pay.
So when her contract was renewed in March 2010, her monthly pay although up by just $20 to $350, the terms and effective payment per month had to be a lot more than that as detailed here in order to entice her to stay.
Not surprisingly, when her contract was renewed in March this year, her monthly pay had to be $500, after consolidating the various variables in the 2nd contract. In addition, she will be getting one month’s bonus per year of service; payment of $20 per public holiday and come January 2013 when the weekly day off for domestic workers kicks in by law, she would be getting an extra $60 every month for each batch of 3 off days foregone. Also, she would be getting one month’s home leave taken ahead of completion of her 3rd contract + return airfare home.
If she completes her 3rd contract in March 2014, she would also get a lumpsum equivalent to the average agent’s fee for securing a domestic worker for me.
Many of my friends stick out their tongues when they hear what I’m paying Siti, suggesting that I’m spoiling the market.
I may or may not be an outlier but fact is, where looking after my mum is concerned Picky is irreplaceable or if replaceable the costs involved would far outweigh the pay increase we stack up for her, besides taking the nonsense of her somewhat abrasive nature. No servile servant she.
She has imbibed the culture of the family; the habits of my mum and the food preferences of all who eat in my home. She keeps such a tight rein on cleanliness that I sometimes fear she’s got a touch of OCD!
It’s not as if I’ve not tried to make mum and the family less dependent on her as witness our last attempt in 2010 to hire an understudy just be4 Picky went on leave. It was a painful and expensive experience as detailed here.
That’s why this time round, I’ve decided it’s both cheaper and less stressful to give Picky a generous raise and hope she will value the pay, the food and the general freedom she gets in my home and continues to perform her assigned tasks faithfully.
And that’s how I would set the argument when pushing for better wages for the lower paid. Not say it’s needed to close the income gap; not say it’s because of the rising cost of living; not say other countries pay their menial workers better; not say we take out the foreign worker numbers out of the equation.
Rather my suggestion is to find a way to make as many of the Singaporean low-pay workers as possible become indispensable to their empolyers’ universe, so that paying more for their service isn’t as painful as taking on foreign or younger workers who accept lower wages.
However, I’m not sanguine that this will happen. Rather the pay-more school who are louder and more aggressive is likely to win the day, in some sectors anyway. Witness how bus drivers are suddenly promised a hefty wage hike even before Prof Lim Chong Yah had said his piece.
And the result could be, would be some of those — who need their jobs so badly that they are willing to take what is pittance in the SG context — will be booted out of the labour market and in extreme cases will join the human strays of the homeless and the penniless that many of us are already coming across as we go about our business in the busier parts of Singapore.
So this May Day, let’s join hands and make the promise to make it our business spare something for a meal for each and every one of those we come across whether at MRT stations, hawker centres, void decks, bin centres, even road sides looking hungry and worse from living rough.
This is more meaningful than beating our breast about that segment of Singaporeans whose jobs earn them bottom pay. At least they have jobs and pay.
Spare more thought and energy on those who are jobless, homeless, ill and old all at once.