A voice for lower-wage workers

By August 23, 2021Local Life, People, Work

TL;DR – Find out how Mr Zainal Sapari does more for lower wage workers through personal experience.

When we think of lower wage workers, we think about how we can do better for our security guards and our cleaner aunties. With folks like Gilbert Goh showcasing his “acts of kindness” on Facebook (and at the same time dissing the government), we’re always quick to think that there’s nothing done for the lower wage workers community. 

Enter Zainal Sapari. He has been serving at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for more than 10 years. With a personal mission to right the “social injustice” suffered by lower-wage workers, Mr Zainal Sapari has been pushing for society to do right by lower-wage workers by pushing for the implementation of various policies (the most prominent being the Progressive Wage Model) in various sectors. 

In a recent update on his Facebook page as the Chairman of the Tripartite Cluster for the Landscape Industry (TCL), Mr Zainal shared a report with recommendations that included higher base wages for the sector. 


But, how did Mr Zainal’s passion for advocating for lower-wage workers come about? We dive a little deeper into the man beyond the union.

Started from the bottom now we’re here 

Mr Zainal Sapari came from a low-income family. In a separate interview, Mr Zainal shared that his father held three jobs growing up – a cleaner, garbage collector and security guard. His mother on the other hand, was a maid and his family stayed in the maid’s quarters; where his family eventually moved into a three-room flat., together with 4 other siblings. Most of his belongings were hand me downs; he couldn’t change his uniform everyday as he only had two sets. A meal at a hawker centre was a luxury. 

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Doing what’s truly right for lower-wage workers through experience 

Everything clicked. Mr Zainal’s passion for championing the rights of the lower-wage workers was a drive that stemmed from personal experience. 

After ending his 20-year career in the education sector, he started out with union work with the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU) – which was aligned with his interest in helping lower wage workers. He then progressed to become the Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC, as well as the Director of NTUC Care and Share Department which specialised and focused in helping lower-wage, casual and contract workers. He is now holding a position as the Assistant Directors-General in NTUC. 

He has since lobbied for workers’ rights such as; pushing for payslips to be made mandatory under the Employment Act so as to prevent disputes over salary, and lobbied for the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) in Singapore with the intention of helping lower-wage workers. 

Why push for the Progressive Wage Model (PWM)? Isn’t Minimum Wage better? 

We won’t go into the details of the whole debate PWM vs MW as that is a whole topic for another day. But basically.. Applying a universal MW across all sectors would result in problems adjusting to the sudden increase in labour costs. This causes more problems than you would think; such as significantly cutting headcount to adapt to the rising costs as the profitability of the companies decrease.

Pushing for the PWM means a gradual adoption and increase across all sectors, with its’ core purpose to increase the wages of workers through upgrading skills and improving productivity, which seeks to prevent an increase in unemployment typically caused by a minimum wage policy. 

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Through NTUC’s efforts, the PWM was implemented in the cleaning and security sector, and most recently for the landscaping sectors. 

But… doing more for lower-wage workers can’t come from one person. It takes an entire country. 

Committees, the government and companies can do all they can to ensure that lower-wage workers are fairly commensurate and treated. But what can really drive effective change is for the community at large to play a part. To ensure that the wages of the lower-wage workers increase, we have to be prepared to pay for maintenance fees for security guards, or even higher HDB conservancy fees for cleaners and lift technicians. 

In the words of Mr Zainal Sapari from his 2019 Facebook post,

“It takes a village to raise a child. In the same vein, I say that it takes everyone in society to help lower wage workers.” 


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Catherine Mak

Author Catherine Mak

I love hawker food and coffee.

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