“According to a salary survey conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) between October and December last year, more than 85 per cent of government-funded voluntary welfare organisations have increased wages by a median of 8 per cent” (“Increase Pay In Social Service Field”, Mr. Lim Yi Han).
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s call for pay in the social service field to be made more competitive (“Increase Pay In Social Service Field” (June 29, 2013) by Mr. Lim Yi Han) echoes a perspective made by Mr. Chan Chun Sing in 2012, the former Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports. While explaining the ministry’s campaign to attract and retain social workers, he revealed that the government was looking to raise the salaries further, so as to match those “in teaching and the civil service within one or two years”. The premise is a straightforward one: the profession faces an annual manpower shortfall, and a healthy level of wages could – to some extent – attract more staff members.
The affirmation given by policymakers to the social service profession is heartening. The current pool of registered social workers and social service practitioners is 1,400-strong. With a growing demand for their knowledge and expertise, while the administration’s commitment to continuous training and development has been largely fulfilled, it would be interesting to see if the number of employees in the organisations has kept pace. Other statistics like the overall attrition rate would give a good sense of the levels of job engagement or satisfaction.
Some might say that social workers should not be motivated by the amounts of money they receive, and should therefore not make comparisons with their contemporaries within the industry, or with their counterparts from other sectors. Indeed, two representatives from the non-profits posited that “pay should not be the main criteria in this industry”, and “the main reason why [social workers] join should be to serve and help people”.
Be that as it may, the heads of these organisations and service centres should allow for a degree of pragmatism as well. It would be detrimental if present remuneration is perceived as a deterrent, thereby preventing an inflow of capable, intelligent, young social workers.
DPM Tharman harps on the term “competitive”, but does not provide more specific details for its conception and determination. Who should make the decisions? Would it be pegged against the civil service and teaching profession, as Acting Minister Chan had stated? Currently, the National Council of Social Service publicly lists a table, detailing pay scales and compensation for varying occupations and appointments in the voluntary welfare organisations. The details were crafted, following the guidelines and deliberations from the National Wages Council. Other questions emerge too. Because NCSS’s indications are not prescriptive, are the wages consistent across the non-profits? Do – and should – the organisations have the liberty to design more lucrative remuneration arrangements?
More importantly, as the consultation process proceeds, views should be solicited – not just from the organisation’s supervisors and director – but from aspiring and present social workers. The former would give the government a good sense of the expectations and aspirations, while the latter would provide on-the-ground insights of the status quo.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.