Let's take a moment to think abut the earning power of (1) Singapore's poorer citizens and (2) Singapore's foreign maids.
June 4, 2005
Bosses told to raise low wages for own good
NTUC chief says not doing so could lead to social tension, damage businesses
By Lynn Lee
IT IS in employers' interests to raise wages for their lower-salaried employees, as having a pool of workers unable to cope with living costs could lead to social tensions.
Labour chief Lim Boon Heng said last night that this would in turn hamper the operations of businesses here.
'It is for the own good of the employers,' he said, commenting on the National Wages Council's (NWC) recommendation that firms planning to raise wages should give lower-income employees higher increases.
'So it's in everyone's interest to play our part and ensure that they are not left behind.'
The nearly 300,000 low-wage earners in Singapore - those earning $1,200 or less a month - make up the bottom fifth of salary earners here.
Let's say Madam Jin Pai Mia is a 55-year-old spinster belonging to the Low-Income Singaporean category. She works as a cleaner in a commercial office building and earns $900 a month.
Madam Jin takes the MRT to and from work every day. That's about $1.50 x 2 x 24 days = $72 a month. She pays about $60 for her water and electricity bills at home. She eats three meals a day, each costing an average of $3.00. That's $3.00 x 3 meals x 30 days = $270 a month on food. Let's say Madam Jin falls sick once in a while and needs to see the doctor. We'll put it at $20 a month. She rents a flat from the HDB. Let's say it's $250 a month (I don't know how much it costs - it's just my guesstimate).
That's $672 on basic stuff like transportation, water, electricity, food, medical care and accommodation. After deducting $672 from Madam Jin's monthly salary of $900, she's left with $228.
Now, a foreign domestic maid gets about $300 a month. However, the maid does not need to spend money on public transport to get to work each day. Her employer pays the electricity and water bills and provides three meals a day. The maid's accommodation is essentially free. If the maid falls ill, the employer is, by law, responsible for her medical expenses.
So when the maid gets $300 a month, the maid really earns $300 a month.
However, when Madam Jin gets $900, she's really earning just $228 a month.
What are the conclusions we can draw from my simple scenarios above? Well, it largely depends on your perspective.
You could say that poor Singaporeans are really poor and that it's amazing that 300,000 of them live like that. Or you could say that Singapore's foreign maids are in fact quite well-paid, considering that the employer provides free food, lodging and other amnities.
If you probe a little more, you might wonder why richer Singaporeans (those who need and can afford a domestic helper) generally don't employ a poor Singaporean woman as a live-in maid, as opposed to a Filipino or Indonesian woman. (The Singaporean woman could be paid less, but in return you provide food, lodging etc).
You might also examine the idea that Singapore employers are basically an evil bunch who exploit both foreign maids as well as lowly-educated, lowly-skilled Singaporeans.
If you think a little further, you'd also wonder about what the future holds for someone like Madam Jin Pai Mia. Because there WILL come a day when she grows too old and weak to be cleaning toilets in an office building. Madam Jin will eventually be replaced by a strong, healthy Bangladeshi male worker. This young man will do the same work for 5 years, then return happily to Dhaka, buy a plot of land and start a rice farm that will support his family's needs for years and years to come.
Meanwhile, what will happen to Madam Jin? How long will her meagre retirement savings last her?