On Thursday (15 Oct), a heated debate over a minimum wage erupted in Parliament between Members of Parliament from People’s Action Party and Workers’ Party.
It started when MP Koh Poh Koon, who was speaking in his capacity as the deputy secretary-general of NTUC criticised WP’s proposed policy of setting a universal minimum wage of $1,300 a month in Singapore. He said that this could lead to unemployment as businesses may face unsustainable higher costs.
Presently, the PAP government is adopting their Progressive Wage Model (PWM) which attempts to set minimum wages by industry. For example, the PWM already sets a minimum wage for the cleaning, landscaping and security sectors but with mandated wage increases as the worker gains more skills and experience. The Government is said to be looking into applying PWM to other sectors too.
The fiery exchange, which lasted close to 50 minutes, saw WP MPs Assoc Prof Jamus Lim and Leon Perera countering the arguments brought up Koh. Koh was forced to rise up and defend himself several times during the debate.
“The problem with a minimum wage is that it is not connected to any skills ladder. It is a number and the employer then has to decide if the employee makes the mark or it’s too costly for him,” Koh argued.
“Folksy wisdom and beliefs”
One of the arguments raised during the debate was whether academic studies done on minimum wage are relevant.
Koh said that the tripartite partners already look at data in their discussions, but the practical considerations of carrying them out may be challenging. He brought up Hokkien idioms used by a union member to illustrate this and the colloquial wisdom lying behind these phrases.
Assoc Prof Lim then impressed upon the House that WP’s proposal is based on studies that show that a minimum wage does not lead to an increase in unemployment, and is not based on “folksy wisdom and beliefs of labour union leaders”.
The use of the word “folksy” by Assoc Prof Lim in Parliament appears to have triggered the enmity of some people linked to NTUC.
Irritated by the term “folksy”, the former president of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU), Nasordin B. Mohd Hashim wrote to ST Forum today criticising Assoc Prof Lim for belittling union leaders (‘Forum: Jamus Lim’s remarks belittle work of unionists‘).
BATU is, of course, affiliated to NTUC headed by the former PAP Cabinet Minister as well as former Chief of Defence Force, Ng Chee Meng.
Nasordin said that he had previously represented BATU to make recommendations for PWM in the tripartite clusters for cleaners and also for landscape workers.
“It is regretful that the Workers’ Party’s Jamus Lim made comments in Parliament on Thursday 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,” he added.
“Folksy, as we understand the term, refers to a simple manner of one being friendly and, perhaps, informal in behaviour… In the context of the parliamentary debate, when Associate Professor Lim alluded to ‘folksy’ union leaders who think that the Sun revolves around the Earth, it belittles the years of hard work put in by unionists.”
To be fair, Assoc Prof Lim did not say union leaders think that the Sun revolves around the Earth. It’s not known how Nasordin could have come up with such thoughts.
Nasordin went on to say that BATU did engage many workers to obtain feedback from them so as to help craft the PWM. Touting the success of PWM, he said, “Between 2013 and 2018, real median monthly gross wages of full-time cleaners and landscape workers grew cumulatively by around 30 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.”
“There is no doubt all unionists care deeply for our workers. We wish for them to achieve more in their jobs, giving them the dignity of earning a decent living and the pride of career progression,” he shared.
“The PWM allows for that. Since the PWM was implemented, it has been easier to encourage workers to upskill themselves. We are confident this will bode well for them in the near future, even as the economy reshapes during this crisis.”
In any case, Nasordin is no longer the president of BATU.