Lower-wage workers have felt the impact of Covid-19 most acutely.

By August 12, 2021Current
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TL;DR – An essential part of inclusive growth is progression for lower-wage workers.

While the pandemic has meant extra food deliveries while being “stuck” at home with our Netflix on loop, the reality can be quite different for lower-wage workers. Think 12-hour backbreaking shifts, 6/7 days a week… We are all in the same storm, but different boats.

PM Lee Hsien Loong shared in his National Day message on 8 August that lower-wage workers have found it harder to cope with reduced incomes and unexpected job losses.

Around the world, the pandemic has led to millions of people suffering job losses, with lower-income families disproportionately affected. Research has also found that depression and anxiety levels are up, especially for those on low incomes. Since the start of the pandemic, many on low incomes have struggled to pay their bills, meet rent or mortgage payments or even feed their families. Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

In the short term, the Government and unions have stepped in to provide more help amid the crisis. The National Trades Union Congress has set up a foundation with an initial funding of $250 million which will be invested to fund financial assistance schemes and grants to support its members. Labour Chief Ng Chee Meng said the NTUC Foundation will provide a steady stream of income for NTUC’s financial assistance schemes and grants. Individuals in the communities have also stepped up in a heartwarming show of support for the vulnerable among us. The slew of support measures like the Covid-19 Recovery Grant, Courage Fund, SIRS, NTUC Care Fund and various ComCare and ground-up initiatives have helped to some extent, but more need to be done in the longer term.

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A Whole-of-society Effort in Supporting Lower-wage Workers

Did you know that the real wages of Singaporean lower-wage workers at the 20th percentile grew 39 per cent between 2009 and 2019? This is significantly faster than that of workers at the median at 33 per cent, but to get to a fair and inclusive society, we must do more to help these lower-wage workers to progress – at the same time, also accord them with dignity and respect! This can only happen with support from the government, employers, unions, service buyers, you, and me.

On uplifting the wages of our lower-wage workers, there has been good progress. The good news is, compared to 2012 when the Progressive Wage Model for cleaning was first introduced, attitudes of employers and even service buyers have changed. Today, Senior Minister of State Mr Zaqy Mohamad shares, all PWM stakeholders buy into the same vision, and work together to support our lower-wage workers. Employers now understand that PWM is win-win, bringing benefits to them and their workers!

Now, even as consumers and service buyers, we must understand that raising wages may lead to higher prices. Pay a little more so that low-wage workers, including cooks, waiters and kitchen assistants can see higher wages? That will be a ‘Yes’ for me. How about you?

Mr Zaqy also noted that while lower-wage workers in Singapore have seen “robust real income growth”, this was not the case for most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

“For example, over the same 10-year period, workers at the 20th percentile in the UK saw no real wage growth, while those in Japan and US saw only cumulative real wage growth of 3 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, despite having minimum wage,” he said.

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Nobody wins until everyone wins. So, are there ways to do better by our lower-wage workers?

As Singapore becomes an increasingly skills-based economy, lower-wage workers will need more sustained support. A tripartite workgroup for lower-wage workers has been working on proposals that build on Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model to uplift our lower-wage workers. Wages aside, the Group is also exploring ways to improve their well-being, and create job progression opportunities to help them in the longer term.

While the Government, Union and various agencies do their parts, as consumers, can we accept that higher wages for our vulnerable may result in rising costs that could trickle down? I’d say, let’s do our part and bear these costs as a society. Let every Singaporean have the chance to advance in the years to come. Because nobody wins until everyone wins.

“An essential part of inclusive growth is progression for lower-wage workers.” ~ PM Lee Hsieng Loong


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