Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill [Bill no. 39/2018]
Sir, I declare my interest as the Chairman of the Nee Soon Town Council and I stand in full support of the Bill.
The proposed amendments will help to make a significant difference in the lives of our cleaners. Our cleaners play a vital role in our community and yet some receive very little appreciation for the work that they do and for some, they receive very little income as well.
This Bill is a positive step forward and helps to ensure that our cleaners’ work becomes a little bit easier and they also feel more appreciated.
I worked with our cleaners in Nee Soon East and will share some of their stories in this speech. I will also make some suggestions on how we can help our cleaners further and seek some clarifications.
Using technology to make waste management safer and more efficient
This Bill proposes to utilise air pressure to move waste through pipes to a bin centre, which replaces the older and more labour-intensive way of clearing waste.
It is an encouraging step to move towards using cleaner and more efficient processes. It will benefit our cleaners and we can benefit from a reduction in odour issues, improve overall hygiene and our living environment.
I’m glad that the government is footing the bill for the installation of the pneumatic waste conveyance system. However, it will be the Town Council who will maintain it and our maintenance costs will likely go up.
Can I ask if the government will be providing any grants to the Town Councils to help offset the increased maintenance costs at least for the first few years?
PWM is a positive step forward for cleaners
Next, since the introduction of the PWM in 2012, companies across industries have gradually rolled out the changes to positively benefit low-income workers.
In the Occupational Wage Survey conducted by MOM, it indicated that the median basic and gross wages of full-time resident cleaners grew by 9% and 12% per annum respectively from 2012 to 2015.
I support the proposed move in this Bill to take the PWM a step further, by mandating the payment of an Annual Bonus.
In my interactions with Nee Soon East residents who are cleaners, they have expressed appreciation of this change.
Sir, it is important for all of society to move forward together. Where market forces place a downward pressure on wages of certain sectors, like cleaning, it is important for the government to intervene.
The PWM and now the Annual Bonus is a step in the right direction and helps to lift income levels of low-wage workers.
I do have some questions and clarifications about the enforcement of the PWM.
How are employers who game the system in order to skirt wage increments flagged out? What are the penalties or other enforcement mechanisms in place to put pressure on companies to implement recommendations and adhere to the PWM?
Can the Minister also clarify whether the wages and benefits under the PWM are reset for those who perform the same job functions and roles when the cleaning service providers are changed?
Ensuring PWM is mandatory for all local cleaners
Sir, the PWM is a very positive step forward for cleaners but the issue now is that it doesn’t apply to all local cleaners.
For example, I understand that PWM is not mandatory for a cleaner who is hired directly by an F&B establishment.
If the same cleaner is employed by a licensed cleaning company and is sent to the same F&B establishment and does the same exact work as a cleaner, PWM then becomes mandatory.
I appreciate that it might not be easy for us to legislate that PWM is mandatory for all local cleaners regardless of who hires them but can Minister clarify what MEWR is doing to plug this gap.
This is important for cleaners like Ah Eng whom I had the privilege of working with when I gained some experience as a coffee shop cleaner.
She has been a cleaner for the past 2 decades and as I shared on facebook “She was so hardworking, so caring and so dedicated. She taught me a lot and a lot more than cleaning a coffee shop.”
Ah Eng’s husband passed away when her 2 children were still young and she single-handedly brought them up through working as a cleaner. Her’s is a story of resilience, of sacrifice and of pure hard work.
I understand that she is currently hired directly by the coffeshop and as such PWM is not mandatory for her and she may not receive the Annual Bonus proposed in this Bill.
I honestly think this is not fair and I sincerely hope that Minister can look into this and help ensure that local cleaners like Ah Eng can benefit from the PWM.
Encouraging companies to adopt progressive wage principles for foreign cleaners
Our foreign cleaners also don’t benefit from the PWM but I’m grateful that MEWR has encouraged employers to incorporate the principles of progressive wages into the wage structure of their foreign cleaners.
Can I ask the Minister what percentage of our cleaners are foreigners and how many cleaning companies actually apply the PWM to foreign cleaners? If such data is not currently collected, would the Ministry consider collecting this information?
The PWM is also about increasing productivity and standards. MOM states that, “higher productivity improves business profits for employers. Service buyers also enjoy better service standards and quality.”
But if we leave out our foreign cleaners from the PWM and bearing in mind that they likely form a bulk of the cleaning workforce, how then will we achieve higher productivity, improve profits and enjoy better service standards and quality?
Can I ask if MEWR is looking into how to further encourage companies to adopt progressive wage principles for foreign cleaners?
Sir, can I also suggest that MEWR studies what is being done in the construction sector and see if we can implement similar policies for the cleaning sector.
In the construction sector, the R1 scheme encourages employers to help their workers upskill. This increases the quality and productivity of the workforce, and provides wage progression pathways for higher skilled Work Permit holders.
Employers can upgrade their Basic-skilled R2 workers to Higher-skilled R1 workers by meeting minimum experience, minimum wage, or certification requirements. As incentives, employers pay a lower levy and enjoy an extended employment period for the Higher-skilled worker.
Will MEWR consider this for the cleaning industry?
Further, at least 10% of construction workers must be Higher-skilled R1 workers. Would the Minister consider similarly making it a condition of cleaning business licence that 10% of their foreign cleaners must be higher skilled workers who again meet minimum working experience, minimum wage, or certification requirements?
This could address my earlier point and might help us achieve higher productivity, improve profits and enjoy better service standards and quality in the cleaning sector.
Sir, I have also worked with our cleaners at the Nee Soon Town Council and experienced firsthand how difficult their job is and how back-breaking the work is.
I worked with Hanif who is from Bangladesh and who has been a cleaner in Singapore for 12 years. I learnt a lot from him, how difficult his life has been and yet how he is so full of smiles and so dedicated about making sure he does his job well for us.
His enthusiasm for life was infectious and residents love him and treat him not as their cleaner but as their good friend and for some their family member.
I had dinner with Hanif’s family when I was in Bangladesh earlier this year and I saw firsthand how proud they were of him and most of all how much they miss him.
Like all of us, Hanif works hard and sacrifices for his family. Hanif got married recently and his wife is now expecting their first child.
Sir, I got to experience Hanif’s work as a cleaner but I doubt we can ever fully appreciate how difficult it must be for him to be so far from home and for so long. How difficult it must be to not be with his wife who is now pregnant and how difficult it must be to not be there for his or her childhood.
Sir, our cleaners like Ah Eng and Hanif do a lot for us for very little. They help ensure we have a clean environment to live in, to work in and a clean environment to enjoy our food and drinks in. They are sometimes a forgotten group of people and we need to make sure they are fairly treated.
I am thankful that this Bill highlights the important work they do for us, it recognises their efforts and shows how much we appreciate all that they do for us.
Sir, “being told you’re appreciated is one of the simplest and most uplifting things you can hear”. Let me end by saying a big and heartfelt thank you to all cleaners in Singapore. Sir, I stand in full support of this Bill.