Unions say proposed S$1,300 minimum wage not workable, reject WP MP's ‘folksy wisdom’ remark
SINGAPORE — Some union leaders have hit back at the Workers’ Party (WP) suggestion of setting a universal minimum wage of S$1,300 a month, pointing out that the lowest salaries in some sectors are already above that level.
- The Workers’ Party has proposed a universal minimum wage of S$1,300 a month
- During a debate on the matter, WP’s Assoc Prof Jamus Lim said the opinions of union leaders are “folksy wisdom and beliefs”
- Union leaders said the description was uncalled for and unwarranted
- They said the S$1,300 figure is too low and could drag other wages down
SINGAPORE — Some union leaders have hit back at the Workers’ Party's (WP) suggestion of setting a universal minimum wage of S$1,300 a month, pointing out that the lowest salaries in some sectors are already above that level.
They also said that remarks by WP’s Associate Professor Jamus Lim in Parliament last week, when he likened the opinions of union leaders to “folksy wisdoms and beliefs”, were uncalled for and unwarranted.
Union leaders with whom TODAY spoke pointed out that leaders in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) use data and statistics when formulating policies, along with their knowledge of ground sentiments.
In fact, Mr Arasu Duraisamy, who is general secretary of the Singapore Port Workers’ Union, said that no business leader would accept the union’s proposals if they were just made up of “words from the man on the ground”.
Ms K Thanaletchmi, president of the Healthcare Services Employees Union, said that the union has been engaging with the hospitals to increase the wages of the sector’s lowest paid workers to S$1,500 through job redesign and the upskilling of its staff.
A minimum wage of S$1,300 may “drag everybody downwards”, she said, as workers who are being paid higher than that figure may have their salaries reduced to the minimum requirement.
She added that she is sceptical about how WP derived S$1,300 as the appropriate amount to be set as the minimum wage.
“On what basis do they think S$1,300 is enough? In today’s day and age, I think S$1,300 is too low. I am kind of baffled by the proposition made by WP. Is it truly by data and statistics?” she questioned.
Assoc Prof Lim’s comments surfaced during a debate on minimum wage in Parliament last week, when he was responding to NTUC deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon.
Among other things, Dr Koh — who is also Senior Minister of State for Health — noted that WP’s proposed S$1,300 would help just about 32,000 workers, which make up 1.7 per cent of Singapore’s workforce. That is because out of the 100,000 low-wage workers who earn below S$1,300 a month, including employer Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution and Workfare topups, only 32,000 are full-time employees. The rest are either self-employed or part-time workers.
“So what the WP wants to achieve with the proposed minimum wage of S$1,300, we have already achieved through the progressive wage model, Workfare Income Supplement Scheme and other policy measures,” Dr Koh said.
Dr Koh also pointed out that there are practical challenges in implementing “reams of data and research”. He brought up Hokkien idioms used by a union leader to illustrate this and the colloquial wisdom lying behind these phrases.
Assoc Prof Lim, who is Member of Parliament for Sengkang Group Representation Constituency, then said that WP’s proposal is based on well-researched academic findings, and not based on “folksy wisdom and beliefs of labour union leaders”.
Ms Cham Hui Fong, NTUC assistant secretary-general, said that union leaders conduct their own studies of how minimum wage is applied in other overseas jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, Australia and Europe, and the outcomes in these places.
She said that the tripartite partners decided to take a sectoral approach to increase the income of low-wage workers through this research and that different union leaders in various sectors could not agree on the appropriate wage level.
“To say that it is totally baseless, based on our... wisdom and beliefs, cannot be right. How can we do things this way? I mean there are 6,000 union leaders, you mean they are all fools?” she said.
“I think everybody is subject to your own views, that one we can respect, but please do not belittle the unions,” she added.
Mr Sanjeev Tiwari, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees, said that the contest between the minimum wage or the progressive wage model — the current scheme preferred by the authorities — is up to the political parties to debate.
However, Assoc Prof’s Lim comments are a “over-generalisation” and they discredit all the hard work union leaders have put in, he added.
“Yes, we all want wages to increase, but that comes with some compromises,” he added.
Employers also have a profit-making agenda, said Mr Sanjeev, and it requires everyone on the negotiating table to consider all factors, complemented with data, and then to come up with a solution.
TODAY has sought a response from the WP and Assoc Prof Lim.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Assoc Prof Lim clarified that he was making the argument that policy-making should not be based on “folksy wisdom”.
“To be clear, my statement was about the beliefs held by some union leaders about the minimum wage, as cited by SMS (Senior Minister of State) Koh. While there is a role for opinion based on personal experience, policy should be formulated on the basis of data-driven empirical evidence. It is important not to conflate the two, by using an opinion to refute a study,” he said.
He added that he respects the views of union leaders, such as their emphatic representation of workers, their ability to negotiate with businesses and their hard work in supporting workers’ rights, even though most of the unions have had ties with the ruling People’s Action Party for decades.
“My disagreement in this instance in no way diminishes my regard for unionists in these other ways, nor does it take away from my appreciation of their work in the past,” he added.