The Labour Movement of #Fail

At a recent media conference, chief of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Lim Swee Say expressed discomfort with calls of equal work, equal pay following the SMRT bus drivers’ strike at the end of last month.

Yes, the head of Singapore’s major labour union does not like the idea of equal work, equal pay. You can’t make this stuff up.

Talk of “equal work, equal pay” came up when Chinese bus drivers with SMRT went on strike, highlighting the discrepancy in pay between them and Malaysian drivers (Singaporean drivers get even more). Some people began to ask, “Why aren’t the drivers paid the same? Aren’t they, after all, doing the same amount of work? Why this discrimination between the different nationalities?”

In explaining his issue with the idea of equal work deserving equal pay, Mr Lim mentioned the following points:
– We have to take into account the living conditions within the region. If we pay migrant workers (from countries where the cost of living is lower) the same as local workers, it would be unfair to the locals.
– The cost for employers would rise because they would have to pay the levies for foreign workers, and perhaps even accommodation and transport.

Sounds very reasonable, right?

Except it’s not.

The general standard of wages in a country is often determined by a combination of market forces and government policies. Many countries have a minimum wage policy to ensure that most, if not all, employment pay at least a basic living wage for the residents of that country. But this is on a macro level. Wages are not tailored specifically to the living conditions and standards of the individual worker.

In other words: it’s none of your business where the worker’s family lives, where he/she is remitting money to, and what the cost of living is there. These are considerations that are outside of the job description, and therefore irrelevant when it comes to the setting of wages.

If we take Mr Lim’s logic, perhaps we should even pay Singaporean drivers differently, based on how many dependents they have at home. Otherwise it’s very unfair for a driver who has two children and an elderly parent to earn the same as a driver who’s single and only has to fend for himself/herself, right?

If local workers were to take umbrage at their colleagues earning the same wage as they are for doing the same work, then it reflects small-mindedness, prejudice and discrimination. It’s not an attitude to be encouraged, much less used as an argument by the trade union.

Anyway, the ability for employers to hire migrant workers and pay them less has also played a significant role in the overall depressing of wages – which ultimately hurts Singaporeans. If we stick to the “equal work, equal pay” concept, migrant workers no longer become cheaper to employ than Singaporeans, thus allowing us to remove one of the incentives that employers have for hiring migrant workers.

And if you say, “But then who will do the work, because Singaporeans don’t want to!” then my answer would be that the whole system needs to be relooked – why is it that Singaporeans turn down these jobs? Is it the hours, the work conditions, the pay? Maybe those are more pressing issues than making sure that migrant workers don’t get treated as if they’re equals.

On the point of cost to employers rising. The foreign workers’ levies were introduced by the government as a way to dissuade employers from hiring foreigners when they could be hiring locals. This doesn’t necessarily seem to be working – there are cases of employers and agencies simply passing on the cost of the levy to the worker, the same worker who is also earning less money because of his/her status as a migrant worker.

If the government were to institute a minimum wage that would also extend to migrant workers, that everyone would get equal pay for equal work, and do more to ensure the protection of workers’ rights – thus making migrant workers less easy to bully and exploit, removing the incentive for employers to hire foreigners and paying enough for people to live on in such an expensive city – would we really still need to have a need for such an artificial means of “deterrence” as the levy?

The consideration of providing lodging and transport is also problematic. Why do the employers have to provide lodging and transport to migrant workers when they don’t have to for others? In the SMRT case, the Chinese workers have to live in dorms while the Malaysians don’t, and this is used as a way to justify less pay for the Chinese workers. But why do the Chinese have to live in the dorms, and why does the employer get to choose what to deduct and how much to deduct?

Why can’t we just pay everyone the same and allow the workers to decide where they want to live? If they chose to live in the dorms, charge them rent for the dorms which they would pay out of their wages. If they want to spend all their wages renting privately, then surely that’s their own business?

(Important mention: sometimes the lodging provided to migrant workers is downright shameful.)

These considerations raised by Mr Lim carry superior, dehumanising overtones, often seen in Singapore when we talk about migrant workers. We decide what their standard of living is back home, and decide to give them what we think they deserve (which should be less than us, because by virtue of having the good fortune to be born on this particular bit of land we are somehow automatically more worthy). We decide that they need to stay in dorms, because they clearly are unable to make that decision themselves. We impose the foreign worker levy the same way we impose tax on products we import/export, thus giving employers a sense of “ownership” over that particular worker (you can see this especially clearly in cases related to domestic workers).

These are attitudes that need to be questioned and overturned, not enshrined in national policy and adopted by our “labour movement”.

In fact… what labour movement? It’s been a long, long time since NTUC has been a proper labour union, much less a “movement”. (See here for an article I wrote on unions in Singapore.)

Rather than fighting for the rights of Singapore’s workers – regardless of what passport they hold – the NTUC has become increasingly intertwined with the establishment and the employers, until all is left is a bundle of conflicts of interest, and a union whose views can no longer be distinguished from the government’s.

If there is any movement in this labour union, it’s backwards, not forwards.