TL; DR – Come on, Big Brother.
The central message in Singapore for this year’s Budget and also May Day is loud and clear – the best way to take care of the interests of our workers is for our economy to transform.
One of the aspects of this economic transformation is to become what Mr Lim Swee Say, Minister for Manpower, calls a manpower-lean economy. Technology will be an integral part of this transformation.
The Unscrambled team was invited to a Learning Journey organized jointly by IDA and WDA recently. At the event, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the cleaning sector, as well as the invited media, were shown a whole range of automated and “smart” technology. These technologies are meant to enable the sector to be less reliant on manpower.
One of the technologies displayed was a control system. The control system can be attached onto existing models of cleaning machines, turning them into autonomous cleaning machines.
This machine is being tried out in Changi Airport’s Terminal One. Before using the control system, it took four people to clean the area. Using the system, it now takes only two people. So that’s a great increase in productivity for the cleaning company, with the company saving on manpower costs. Over two to three years, the system would have paid for itself. After that, the cleaning manpower savings will translate to higher profits for the company.
It isn’t just the cleaning company that benefits. Dahari, one of the cleaning assistants, saw his salary increase from $1,400 to $1,700 after he learned to operate the system. So the workers benefit too.
With all these benefits, you would think that there would be a long queue of cleaning companies placing orders for this system. But you would be dead wrong.
All the companies who showed off their technologies at the event are having a hard time to sell their technologies to cleaning companies. Why would that be? Because most cleaning work is outsourced.
Labour MP Zainal Sapari has written about why outsourcing results in depressed wages for low-wage workers. But that’s not the only problem with outsourcing. The way cleaning contracts are currently specified also means that there is no incentive for cleaning companies to be more productive.
Most cleaning contracts now specify the number of cleaners the cleaning company has to provide to clean an area. For example, the owners of a facility may think that four cleaners are needed to keep the area clean. The owners then tell the cleaning company that they have to provide four cleaners to clean the area. So even if the cleaning company found ways to clean the area with less cleaners, there is no incentive for the cleaning company to do so. Because, according to the contract, they HAVE TO have four cleaners cleaning that area.
Yes, instead of outcome-based, most contracts are headcount-based. So unless cleaning contracts are specified differently, there is no way for the cleaning sector to be more productive. And you know who can lead the change?
The government is one of the larger customers of cleaning services. We’ve found out that the Government procurement covers about 11% of resident cleaners. While Government cannot transform industry practices on its own, it can and should take the lead in adopting best-sourcing practices.
All the Temasek companies, all the GLCs which are also intricately linked to the government, are also very large customer of cleaning services. Then there are the Town Councils, which are, in some ways, linked to the government.
Together, the government, GLCs and the Town Councils probably constitute the largest demand for cleaning services. If they change the way cleaning contracts are specified, the rest of Singapore will surely follow.
We’re not the only who think so. Mr Zainal Sapari has raised the matter to speak for the cleaners whenever he gets a chance to, he has also taken to speaking up in Parliament. In an interview with Mothership.sg, he was asked,
Q: Here’s a tricky question: what’s one thing that the government shouldn’t have done?
Zainal: A lot of government services that used to provide jobs for people in the low-skilled category have outsourced such jobs. If you look at HDB, at one stage, all the HDB cleaners, carpark attendants, every single one of them were actually under the employment of HDB. When HDB focuses on their core business, of course, HDB is not the only one, it’s happening all over the world, they start outsourcing some of these services. For example, my auntie was a carpark attendant. Generally, she was happy. She took home a reasonable pay and as she had more responsibilities, the pay increased. But once HDB started to outsource, her pay became stagnant.
When you outsource the contract for two years and at the end of the two years, if another company wins the new contract, whatever benefits the worker has will be reset back to the minimum. Let’s say if a cleaner has been working for two years and the company is good and gives a yearly increment of $50. But when a new company comes in, everything will be reset to zero: annual leave, increment.
While we have pushed for the progressive wage model, we still haven’t found a solution to this problem. So we try to anchor our progressive wage model as a safety net. If it resets, at least it resets to the minimum level of $1,000 or $1,200 if you are skilled.
What I’m worried is that it will be very difficult to attract younger people into this kind of jobs. There’s really no prospect. Every time is reset, reset and reset.
So if the government is serious about the cleaning sector being manpower-lean, then the government should lead the change. The government, along with all the GLCs and Town Councils, should specify contracts based on outcomes, rather than input – regardless of how many cleaners the companies deploy, just keep the area to a specified level of cleanliness.
This transformation takes a total mindset change. Without the government leading such a change, no matter what amazing technologies are available, the productivity of the cleaning sector will NEVER improve.
Come on, G, we dare you to take up this challenge of transforming the cleaning industry.