Leaders of individual trade unions in Singapore seldom make noises in public. Usually, their umbrella NTUC big brother, one leg of the tripartite system here, will do all the talking for them. Until Associate Professor Jamus Lim spoke on Thursday October 16 about the wisdom of not relying on the folksy wisdom and beliefs of union leaders. At least two of these allegedly folksy leaders have sprung up from the woodwork to disagree with the Workers’ Party Sengkang GRC MP. Good for them. We need more engagement for better dialogue on every issue, if nothing else but to remind everyone that times have changed and attitudes should too.
In the Parliamentary debate on basic wage, Dr Lim said:
“With all due respect, as much as it will be lovely to always rely on folksy wisdom and beliefs by labour union leaders, at the same time it’s important to realise that when we talk about studies that show that the minimum wage does not lead to any appreciable increase in unemployment, this is based on careful consideration and not just beliefs.
“It’s worth reminding ourselves that there was a time in the 16th century when people believed that the sun revolved around the earth. But that belief is not in fact the same as evidence.”
Evidence from around the world demonstrates that a minimum wage does not cause widespread unemployment, as long as it is not set too high, said Dr Lim.
Two union leaders fired back.
In a letter entitled “Jamus Lim’s remarks belittle work of unionists” (ST Forum Oct 17), Nasordin Mohd Hashim, former president of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (Batu), said:
“It is regretful that Jamus Lim made comments… not just belittling our hard work all these years, but also seemingly putting down the intricate issues involved in outsourced industries such as cleaning, landscape and lift maintenance…
“Folksy, as we understand the term, refers to a simple manner of one being friendly and, perhaps, informal in behaviour. In other circumstances, unionists like us may not take offence at the term.
“However, in the context of the parliamentary debate… it belittles the years of hard work put in by unionists.
“When working at the Progressive Wages Model for the cleaning and landscape industries, Batu engaged many workers to get feedback, and went beyond just facts and figures from the stakeholders in the tripartite committees.”
At the same time, a website SG Matters carried what appeared to be a rebuttal from Karthikeyan Krishnamurthy. In an article entitled “Jamus Lim knows nothing about workers and their worker representatives: veteran unionist”, the general-secretary of the United Workers of Petroleum Industry said: “We have made significant progress in the past 10 years. The wages of workers at the lowest 20th percentile have increased by 24 per cent in real terms in the last five years, and by 3 per cent over the last 10 years. This was the result of the labour leaders….we the unsung heroes made sure they were not exploited and made sure they are well taken care of.”
I fear our union leaders doth protest a mite too much. The debate is not about the undoubted good work done so far by the trade union movement. It is about whether we should have a basic wage.
I found the week’s tussle between Koh Poh Koon and WP MPs quite enlightening.
A single minimum wage is not a panacea for low-wage workers, and like all other policies, there will be pros and cons, with politicisation one of the big risks, the NTUC deputy secretary-general said.
Each sector will have a different profile of low-wage workers and different realities, Dr Koh said, it will be difficult to set a single wage level that is right for all sectors.
Meanwhile, an arbitrarily fixed wage level is likely to be either not high enough to benefit all workers, or so high that companies in some sectors pass the costs back to consumers, cut back on hiring or go under, he added.
The debate revealed that the number of people earning below the full-time $1,300 minimum wage proposed by Pritam Singh is, according to Koh, only about 32,000 or 1.7 per cent of the workforce.
WP chief Singh said: “My question quite simply is: Do we need to wait so long to cover these Singaporeans? Can we not consider how we can cover them now immediately because it’s not a small number, it is a large number.”
In response, Dr Koh said that included in the 32,000 are workers across different job roles, including those who are helping out at a family member’s hawker stall.
He added: “How do you legislate a minimum wage to say, the father who runs the store employing the son as a worker? When you go down to the bottom, there will be challenges of implementation.”
Are we all arriving at a consensus?
Koh this week repeated what Manpower Minister Josephine Teo has said, that he was “not ideologically opposed” to the idea of a basic wage. Out of Parliament, public debates have also seen people like Prof Tommy Koh arguing for a minimum wage. Pro Koh cited Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong as places which have a minimum wage without the consequences of unemployment or workers turning to illegal jobs.
More stats, more data, faster decision – and less folksy we-know-better posturing. As Singh pointed out, 32,000 is NOT a small group of Singaporeans. And Singapore is no longer Third World.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.