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Asean Affairs   July 15, 2014

Singapore:  Many unhappy with work and social realities

Mon 14 July 2014 (Singapore)  A lot of media attention has been focused on the low wages of Singaporeans recently and how many are finding it hard to keep up with the cost of living.

A recent survey by found that only 31% of Singaporeans said their salary can cover only their basic needs and some non-essential luxuries while 42% said it is only sufficient to meet their basic needs. A shocking 23% said they were still struggling to make ends meet and from this last group, 70% earn less than $3000/month. Only 4% were comfortable with their salaries.

A similar survey by CIMB revealed “about 43% reckon thatthe dollar amount they spend on groceries and utilities has increased by25-50% while 42% estimate that their bills have gone up by 1-25%.”

The latest figures from the Central Provident Fund also showed that more than half of active CPF members who turn 55 have less than the Minimum Sum in their accounts. The newly retired have insufficient CPF for retirement and struggle daily for their survival.

It is even more troubling to learn that many elderly citizens, people who have worked all their lives to contribute to the wealth of our country, are still eking out a living working as cleaners of toilets and hawker centres and doing other menial tasks. What is worse, is that they are paid very little wages.

Local economists have also warned that the widening gap between the haves and have-nots has reached alarming proportions. Singapore suffers from one of the world’s highest Gini coefficients, which measures income inequality. Although the co-efficient have decreased from 0.463 to 0.412 from 2012 to 2013, it still remains amongst the highest in the world. We urge the government to institute a minimum wage system for workers across all sectors so that would allow the bottom twenty percent to catch up with the rest of the country. We also support the chairman of the National Wage Council Professor Lim Chong Yah’s proposal to include a compulsory element in future NWC recommendations that would raise the wages of the low and very low-income earners.

But the government continues to reject calls for a minimum wage and when most of the less skilled local have inadequate wages to provide decent living conditions for their families. It is not just the breadwinner who suffers in such cases, it is also the children and aged who bear the burden of poverty. These burdens mark children at a very young age, depriving them of the resources to help them compete in school and prevent them from breaking out of the poverty trap.

Such lack of social mobility in turn exacerbates the problem of income inequality, as subsequent generations from poorer backgrounds will find it increasingly harder to break away from the clutches of poverty. What is even more inexcusable is the reluctance of the government to even draw a poverty line so that the problem can be measured and managed. Denying the problems will not make it go away, it just gives an impression that they are shirking from responsibility. Without acknowledging that there is a problem, no national resources will be channeled to solving it.

It is shocking that Singaporean workers in the 20th percentile have experienced no increase in real income from 2001 to 2010. This is happening in a nation that boasts one of the highest percentages of millionaires in the world.

More must be done by the government in the redistribution of the country’s wealth to ameliorate the widening income gap of its citizens. Although it tried to reduce personal income tax from 28% in 2002 to 20% 2007, the Goods and Service Tax has increased from the initial 3% to 7% today. This form of taxation is regressive in nature as it affects the poor more than the rich. Whatever temporary offset the government gave are not sufficient to overcome the permanent burden of such a tax on the low wage earners.

Many Singaporean workers have little bargaining power and do not have the capacity to deal with unreasonable employers. There are still many who continue to seek help from the Ministry of Manpower about their poor working conditions and non-contribution of CPF by errant employers even today. Irresponsible employers exploit them through depressed wages, unreasonable work hours, discrimination and unfair dismissals oppress them.

The brazenness of the authorities is so stark that they disregard international standards and insists on going it on their own. The country has only ratified 5 out of the 8 core conventions enumerated in the 1998 ILO declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The government continues to resist ratifying conventions 87, 105 and 111, depriving workers in Singapore the protection they deserve and exposing them to exploitations from unscrupulous employers.

It is a prerequisite for the Employers to ensure that the "Term of Employment" offered to all workers is respectful of the Employment Act that must include decent working standards, fair living wages, and the ILO Declarations on fundamental principles and rights at work. The ILO International Core Labour Standards (CLS) are put in place for the very purpose of protecting all workers must be incorporated into national laws like the Employment Act of Singapore.

Without such a comprehensive and coherent labour framework, local and migrant workers will continue to be pitted against each other benefiting only the employers as they languish without adequate social and labour rights protections.

Lastly, we urge the government to sign the forthcoming ASEAN instrument on the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant workers. This would help raise the level of protection and promotion of migrant worker’s rights to international standards in 2015.

Singapore needs to harmonize its labour, environmental laws and human right’s standards to internationally acceptable legal standards to practically actualize the sustainable development agenda of ASEAN.

by Think Centre

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