Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Speaker. To Minister Indranee Rajah, thank you so much for that response to some of the questions the Workers’ Party Members of Parliament had on the Baby Support Grant. I fully recognise the trouble and the issue about settling on a start date for a grant like this which was unexpected by many members of the public. Having said that, would the Government consider extending the Baby Support Grant to Singaporeans who have received some of these COVID-19-related subsidies, such as SIRS and the COVID-19 Support Grant, because they have already exhibited particular difficulty arising out of their circumstances once COVID-19 started? So, they are already pre-qualified in that sense to be in need and, hence, they have received Government subsidies. These are mainly Singaporeans at the lower to lower middle income group. So, the extension is not really about a date that will reach back for all Singaporean parents, but specifically for lower to middle income Singaporeans. Would that be something the Government could consider? Thank you.
Ms Indranee Rajah: I thank Mr Pritam Singh for his question. I think the approach that we would take is this. This particular scheme has a very specific policy intent, which is to encourage those who are delaying to proceed with their parenthood plans. So, for those who are already low income, proceeding with parenthood plans would add to some of the responsibilities that they have. If they are low income and they have children from 1 October onwards, they will get the Baby Support Grant. No issue.
I think Mr Singh’s question is: can we extend the Baby Support Grant to those born before 1 October who are low income. For those, what we will do is we will utilise the existing schemes that we have for the low-income to make sure that they are taken care of and their needs are taken care of, because we do actually have a very strong social support system. The SSOs were set up for this purpose, ComCare was put in place for this purpose and there are many different schemes which are aimed at that. So, the assurance that we can give is that if you are low income and you have had your child before 1 October and you have financial difficulties, we will help you. It does not necessarily have to be in the form of the Baby Support Grant, but we will still help you.
Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Senior Minister of State for his extensive comments on this matter. I was not intending to speak in this debate but in view of the questions that he has put to me arising from a Facebook post, which was a response to another Facebook post or two Facebook posts by the Minister for Manpower and the NTUC Secretary-General, I will put the position out. Because when we campaigned in the last election, a Minimum Wage was one of the central pillars of our ambit of the proposals that we had put to Singaporeans.
So, I would like to start with, actually, what I felt was a very powerful line from the Senior Minister of State, which was he is not so much concerned at our proposal of a Minimum Wage. And indeed, there is no reason to be very concerned about it because what we are talking about is those Singaporeans who earn below the $1,300 mark. It is not a number that has come out of the sky. I will explain shortly.
The Senior Minister of State has been helpful in providing some data. I believe a newspaper article, just a few days ago, from a former parliamentarian, someone who I think many of us parliamentarians enjoyed listening to, the economist Walter Theseira, asked some important questions. He asked what are the sectors where Singaporeans are earning less than $1,300? How many workers are impacted? And for those who are significantly below the $1,300 floor, what will happen to them?
And that is precisely my question for the numbers that the Senior Minister of State had shared – about the 100,000, a quarter of them self-employed; 56,000 not full-time workers, if I remember correctly, and 32,000 are full-time. Very important figures. I think this is the first time the Government has shared these figures.
And 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 immediately because it is not a small number. It is a large number. If you think of 60,000 rental units available from HDB and you compare that with this number, it is significant – it is quite a lot of Singaporeans who need some help. So, my Facebook posts really was not to diss or dismiss the PWM. It was to nudge the Government, to tell the Government, “Hey, wait a minute. Can we move faster on people who are really, really at one end of the spectrum?”
So, I think the Senior Minister of State understands that context, so that is not so much the issue. So, that was the first question, whether we can reach out more quickly to these individuals.
And I do not believe SMEs would be significantly impacted, with all respect to SMEs, employers and businesses who have also made their views known also in the mainstream media over the last one, one and a half months, perhaps. This number of Singaporeans, we can look after them, we can take care of them, and we can do it quite fast. If there is anybody who can do it for the people who I know as my friends in NTUC, I am pretty sure they are going to work hard with the Government to make that happen. So, I hope the Government takes them up.
My second point is about politicisation, which was what the Minister feared. Are we going to get into an auction when one party says $1,300 and another one says $1,500? This is where we probably have to defer to the experts. The National Wages Council is potentially one forum. And there are also some useful statistics we can use, like the average household expenditure on basic necessities; how much really does it cost for the Singaporean family who is at that end of the spectrum. And the Minimum Wage or the floor can be set at a number which is realistic and correspondent to that.
Actually, the bigger concern I have with the PWM and some of the sectors that the Senior Minister of State has been referring to, is potential profiteering on the back of raising wages for Singaporeans. My question to the Senior Minister of State is what mechanisms are available in NTUC, with MOM, to ensure that companies do not do that.
Now, I say this because earlier this week, I just sat in our usual weekly Town Council meeting and I am aware that certain lift maintenance contracts are coming up for renewal. I have some numbers from the lift companies. For one lift company, costs are going up by 47%. Another lift company, 5%, 10%, 5%, 10%, something of that nature, over a few years. So, because we have different contractors, they have different proposals. Now, if all this increase is going to the Singaporean worker, then I am prepared to take on that burden to persuade our Town Council residents that we need to raise S&CC. I am prepared to take it on because Singaporeans are going to benefit from it.
But my question is, is that a realistic hike in costs? So, I would like the Senior Minister of State to share how can we be sure that as the PWM moves forward and particularly for raising of salaries, those costs will go to our workers and will not be translated into profits.
I think the Senior Minister of State had a question on the ambit of our Minimum Wage proposal. The Minimum Wage we are proposing does not include foreign domestic workers at this point. It does not include foreign manpower at this point because there are other regulatory levers, especially for foreign workers – quotas, levies. I know they serve specific purposes, but I think you will have to implement this and see how best to work the overall manpower situation that SMEs demand and what the economy demands.
Coming back to the important number, it was, I think Senior Minister of State said 1.7% of the population. I am sure Senior Minister of State agrees with me that –
Dr Koh Poh Koon: Workforce.
Mr Pritam Singh: Workforce – I beg your pardon. 1.7% of the workforce. Thank you. I am sure Senior Minister of State agrees with me that we can do and we can move quite fast for this people. I will be prepared to work with Senior Minister of State to ensure that we can actually reach out to these Singaporeans as quickly as the Government can.
Because, I do not think it is acceptable that any one, any Singaporean is earning below this number. It is simply not acceptable. And if we can do something about it in double quick time, let us do it.
Mr Speaker: Dr Koh Poh Koon.
Dr Koh Poh Koon: Mr Speaker, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for some of his clarifications. I must say it is quite easy to propose a Minimum Wage and then when we ask questions about what it is based on and how they will implement it – does it include foreign workers and all – they say, “Government go sort it out”. I think if as Brother Hock Poh said, “If it is so easy to do, we would have done it with any long ago”.
Proposing it for panel of experts to do, do research and studies, that could be one way, but that is actually also what the tripartite partners do. We look at data, but we incorporate the consensus of all the stakeholders including businesses so that they also must be prepared to price this into their business cost and have a way to also socialise it to the consumers. Indeed, as the hon Member said, when there is a wage ladder that goes up or any cost increase for Minimum Wage, this cost will have to be passed to the consumers at some point. So, there has to be a cost implication in the cost impact.
The good news of course is that the PWM, as it stands today, applies only to Singaporean local workforce, Singaporean workers. So, wage increases for PWM only benefits Singapore workers. That is why I asked the question about proposing a blanket single Minimum Wage across all sectors, which has to necessarily cover all workers. Because in many developed countries, the concept of a Minimum Wage, as it is applied, includes migrant workers as well.
So, I think we have to be careful about what we are saying here, because to buck the norm, to be different, there must be a real strong justification.
The data, 1.7% percent of the local workforce, it is not a very clean data because it includes a whole group of people across different job roles. But it also includes people who are technically “employed” but they could be employed in jobs like hawker assistant, helping a family member. They are drawing a salary, but they are happy to be just getting $700 a month helping the father or the mother or something like that, manning a store, for example. How do you legislate a Minimum Wage to say that the father who runs the store, employing the son as as a worker, as an employee, has to add a cost on and mandate it?
Those are the challenges when you go down to the bottom. They will be the challenges of implementation.
Research, data, all these are good. If I may use Brother Hock Poh’s words again, he said “Wo jiak yam bi li jiak bee zuay” or I eat more salt than you eat more rice; “Tak chek jin ho”, but “ai zor jin gan kor” or easier said than done. So, his point is this, reams and reams of data and research is good. But in practice, is always harder to do, because there are practical considerations, there are pushbacks. So, that is why a negotiator approach with stakeholders is the most important.
In the area of working with our stakeholders, I believe that that is why when we work on the negotiated outcome, there is always that balance that can be struck. Where the businesses are prepared to absorb the cost; if not, they have a way to rationalise how to pass the cost on to the consumers.
I am glad to hear that Mr Singh is prepared to also raise the S&CC charges to justify for higher wage cost when we eventually push up the mandatory PWM for the lift and escalator sectors, to make sure that our brothers and sisters in this sector get get paid a fair wage. And I think collectively we ought to socialise Singaporean consumers to the need to up the wages of those at the lower end and demonstrate social solidarity.
Mr Pritam Singh: Thank you, Speaker. I believe Senior Minister of State has not answered my question with regard to how the tripartite partners assess in a particular sector whether profiteering is taking place on the back of what ought to be wage increases for our Singaporean workers.
Dr Koh Poh Koon: Sir, I think the simple answer to that is that in a tripartite PWM model, the wages are pegged to a skills ladder, that can be verified by either a participation in a course or verified through an industry accredited programme. So, with the skills increase, the person would then be justified for wage increase, based on the larger job scope or a more productive outcome in the work delivered.
Mr Speaker: Mr Pritam Singh.
Mr Pritam Singh: I thank the Senior Minister of State for the answer. But I am more referring to a case where like the Labour Annual this year in May, talked about extending the PWM to the lift and escalator sector and I believe there is one more sector, I am not sure whether it was waste management, but one of them.
My point is, this is in the future, but some of these companies are already pricing it in today and is that legitimately correct for them to do so? Apart from that, if there is a reason for a vendor to assert that actually the cost is being overstated here and PWM is being used as an excuse to increase costs, what recourse would the Government consider? Will there be a committee that we can potentially go to to address some of these matters?
Dr Koh Poh Koon: Sir, then the simple process is to make sure that the Town Council when you tender contracts, you have a process of evaluating a competitive tender to assess the points of merit surely, unless you are talking about collusion among various vendors for the same project. Otherwise, there has to be somebody who is prepared to price his service or his product competitively and reasonably.
Mr Pritam Singh: I would like to clarify with the Member. I do not believe any of us made that specific remark. But I would like to ask the Member in return: is he agreeable to pay the 100,000 workers, specifically narrowed down now to 32,000 workers, $1,300 as a business employer? Is he prepared to do that? I hope he is.
Mr Speaker: Mr Edward Chia.
Mr Edward Chia Bing Hui: Mr Speaker, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his clarification. I think as a business owner, the responsibility is not to a specific sector of employees but to the entire company. Sustaining a business means providing jobs for the whole company.
So, a business owner needs to look at sustainability, and it is the responsibility of a business owner to look at productivity increase because that is what makes businesses profitable, viable and then scalable to be able to provide more jobs for Singaporeans.
So, an arbitrary Minimum Wage may actually be more negative for a business. We need to look at it as a holistic approach, helping businesses upskill their employees, helping businesses to grow their business. So, as the businesses grow, we can provide more to our workers and we can actually hire more workers. I think that is what businesses are looking towards in terms of good effective policy.
15 October 2020