By Isaac Leong
The COVID-19 pandemic, beyond being a tangible danger to human life, is also a disrupting force, upsetting societal and economic norms, and forcing deep and long seated issues in society, Singapore included, into the fore. I believe that it is time that we address these issues in the open, and deal with them accordingly.
The first issue to be addressed would be local wages. When COVID-19 first hit our shores in late January, much attention was given to frontline workers, who were given public ovations, free meals, discounts, and one-off bonuses to thank them for their sacrifices and efforts.
While that is a nice gesture, I believe that a more permanent measure is needed to recognize the risks and discomforts that they face in their line of work. A tangible way to do so would be to grant higher wages. The government can lead by example when tendering contracts, with greater emphasis on quality over costs, and including employee remuneration as an assessment rubric under quality factors, so that companies that pay their employees fairly would be rewarded for doing so via government contracts.
The second issue to be addressed, is the lack of a strong Singaporean core workforce, and a lack of next generation work practices. In recent years, the government has been calling upon Singapore-based companies to reduce their reliance on foreign manpower, and to instead build up a strong core of local workers, and to use innovation and automation to improve work efficiency.
Unfortunately, many firms still choose to rely on cheaper foreign labour to make up for headcount shortfalls, and this weakness has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, when the inflow of fresh foreign manpower was tightly restricted in the name of containment.
I believe that locally-based companies have had plenty of opportunities to voluntarily build up a local labour core and use innovation and automation to cope with smaller workforces, and that the government should use this COVID-19 pandemic to push firms to adopt such practices. It could do so by tightening the issuing of foreign labour permits, and maintaining or increasing related levies to discourage hiring of foreign labour. The government could also use its linked statutory boards and corporations, like the EDB, or Temasek, to incubate local companies to rise up with local-friendly work policies and innovative work practices.
Companies themselves should also learn to adapt to the rapidly changing global environment, by being willing to challenge industry norms when it comes to work practices, be willing to pay and treat their employees better, be willing to train local employees, instead of expecting ready-made workers straight out of the education institutes.
However, we as individuals should also step up to the challenge of strengthening our professional skill sets, of taking on the less glamorous yet honest or essential careers, so that we can become that strong local labour core. We need to adjust our expectations, that sometimes, we would need to put in the extra effort, to endure the occasional discomfort, so that our skills can be honed, and our work can be done.
The last issue that has to be addressed, is how we treat our foreign workers. The explosion of COVID-19 infections among foreign workers has been attributed to the cramped, and sometimes unhygienic, living spaces that they have been provided. And this is not a new issue, for migrant advocacy groups have been talking about it for years, but they were conveniently ignored until it became a national health crisis.
All Singaporeans, whether they are the government, corporations, or even individuals, cannot claim innocence from this issue. We have enjoyed the fruits of their labour cheaply, yet give them dirty looks, or simply chosen to blissfully ignore their plight. This has to change, for they are humans like us, and they are doing their very best to earn an honest living by supporting our society.
The government and its agencies can start by reviewing current laws governing living spaces for foreign workers housed in dormitories. Currently, the formula for calculating the living space per individual includes shared spaces. But this should be modified so that the space per individual is solely occupied by that individual alone. This would give workers more space to comfortably live in.
Enforcement of hygiene standards in dormitories should be ramped up, to ensure that beyond giving our foreign workers the dignity of clean living spaces, that our national healthcare is safeguarded.
We as individuals should also begin to start asking the corporations, and even the government, hard questions, like “during the process of coming to our country to work, were these workers exploited in any way, such as being made to pay ridiculous sums to come to work here?” We should start ensuring that they are paid fairly, and on time, for the work that they do, and that if anyone is injured in the line of work, that they are given fair compensation. We need to pressure our government not to use contractors that are known to exploit their workers, or hire subcontractors that do so, and we need to be willing to accept the higher costs for doing so.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come, but the question is: will these lasting changes be viewed solely in a negative light, or can we see some positivity out of this crisis?
Isaac Leong is a casual current affairs follower, gamer, questionable meme lord, and professional (micro)biologist.