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Shock over comment that low-wage workers “only need to worry about food and death”

"You can disagree with minimum wage, but I hope that you do not trivialise the suffering and circumstances of others"

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Singapore — Workers’ Party (WP) member Jeraldine Phneah has called on the online community to be more compassionate to low-wage earners after coming across online comments trivialising the circumstances these workers face amid the national discussion on a minimum wage.

The plight of those who earn below the liveable wage of S$1,300 was thrust into the spotlight in Parliament on Oct 15 when WP chief Pritam Singh called on the authorities to implement a universal minimum wage set at S$1,300 per month since the Government’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM) was taking too long to roll out to all sectors.

The PWM, which takes a sectoral approach to lifting the wages of Singapore’s least-paid workers, has been in force for eight years but has only been applied to three sectors in that time. Despite this, the Government has positioned the PWM as a “minimum wage plus” initiative in the face of calls for it to implement a minimum wage.

People’s Action Party MPs sparred with those from the WP over which initiative will be more beneficial to workers. While the WP held that it is not acceptable for any number of workers to earn lower than a liveable wage, no matter how small the numbers, the PAP  argued that implementing a minimum wage could handicap or kill small-medium enterprises and lead to greater unemployment, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

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In the midst of the online and offline public discourse on a minimum wage following the debate in Parliament, Ms Phneah was taken aback when she noticed one comment that was made on the Seedly Personal Finance Community in response to a news report on whether it was possible to survive on an income less than S$1,300 per month.

The commentator had said: “If you only earn S$1000/month, most of your stuff nearly free cos subsidized. You only need to worry about food and death.”

Suggesting that this is not the case, Ms Phneah pointed to the story of Mdm Rosmah, a cleaner whose story was picked up by CNA recently.

Mdm Rosmah, who cares for her recuperating husband, earns S$700 a month but has to spend S$1,000 a month on just the bare necessities like groceries (about S$420), with the rest going to electricity and conservancy charges (about S$120), medical expenses (about S$100), transport (about S$100), rent for their one-room flat (S$33) and prepaid SIM cards (S$18).

Mdm Rosmah and her husband cook less or eat with their neighbours when their finances dwindle towards the end of the month.

Ms Phneah asked: “Sure, they may have some social assistance. However, if it was truly enough to ensure ‘most of your stuff nearly free’ and ‘only need to worry about food and death’, I wonder if they would have to put up with the circumstances above?”

She said: “It was indeed disappointing and saddening to read some of the comments in this thread.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted many people, particularly the lower income group. If someone who earns less than S$1,300 and was facing hard times saw these comments, I can’t imagine how hurt and humiliated he or she would feel.”

Calling on Singaporeans to refrain from trivialising the suffering of others no matter what their stance on minimum wage is, Ms Phneah added: “You can disagree with minimum wage, but I hope that you do not trivialise the suffering and circumstances of others.

“Let’s try to have more empathy for others, and treat those who are struggling with respect and dignity. Singaporeans, we can do better.”

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