In the past month, articles and the corresponding discourse about low-wage workers in Singapore – security guards, foreign domestic workers (FDWs), and an elderly petrol pump attendant – have echoed the same problematic themes and familiar tropes about our collective need to do more. Yet the structural challenges accounting for the low incomes and a growing class divide often go unchallenged, and instead these themes are rehashed: first, disproportionate emphasis on the needs of whom they labour for, vis-à-vis the needs of the workers; second, underestimation of the physical and mental strain of their jobs; and third, perhaps fundamentally and beyond their labour, not understanding the lived experiences of these workers.
In other words, to have a more productive exchange about improving the welfare of low-wage workers, a deeper examination of policies and structures ought to be complemented by a less self-centred discussion which is sensitive to the lives – and struggles – of these workers.
While the piece about security guards in “RICE Media” alludes briefly – at the very end – to the industry-wide problems of “stagnant low wages and few career advancement prospects which only demoralise employees”, the premise of catching these guards off-guard or dozing off hints at the first problem of the disproportionate focus on their heavy responsibilities, which in the first place are not necessarily commensurate with the salary or the benefits they receive. The accountability expected of these security guards bring to mind the unrealistic expectations we foist upon FDWs, from caring for children and the elderly to tending to strenuous household chores and needs. And whether it is worries about the security of the premises or the burdens shouldered by Singaporean families, the emphasis remains on the needs of the employers, rather than that of the employees.
These needs are not mutually exclusive, but prioritisation of the needs of the employers means that we underestimate the physical and mental strain of low-wage jobs. The human interest story in Channel NewsAsia about petrol pump attendant Mohamed Yasin documents not only the exhausting routine of loading cars with fuel – especially on his 3pm to 11pm shift – but also the difficulties when dealing with irate drivers or customers who drive off without paying. Along this tangent, there is little empathy for the day-to-day graft of the FDW as well as the day-to-day monotony of the security guard, which can be deleterious to their well-being: For FDWs, in addition to the plethora of aforementioned tasks, living in their workplaces is taxing and could even increase the possibility of abuse; and for security guards, the loneliness and the aimlessness of their long shifts often go unnoticed. We are quick to blame them for their perceived laziness or irresponsibility, yet less quick to fault their unhealthy work environments or conditions.
Much of our collective apathy to the lives of low-wage workers – or our perfunctory attempts at empathy – stems from the third problem, on our lack of knowledge of the lived experiences of these workers. And even if we think we know the stress of their jobs, that is but one part of their lives which includes their family too (which is perhaps why Mr. Yasin’s story, which featured his wife and his permanently brain-damaged son, attracted so much attention). From the vantage points of our own privileged workplaces and personal lives it is convenient to spew platitudes about self-reliance and perseverance and pride (in upward mobility), which oftentimes renders us blind to structural reasons for these employment or socio-economic disparities.
Three years ago, there was fanfare when MP Louis Ng announced that he was going to try out 60 different jobs in one five-year term of office to gain some first-hand experience. Each stint would last at least once a month, and the intent of putting himself in the shoes of different workers was “to really understand and really see what is happening on the ground and to be able to make a difference”. Even though the job attachments are short, and not all of them have low remuneration, this notion of placing oneself in the shoes of others remains refreshing. And unless we are prepared to learn more about the lives of low-wage workers in Singapore – and subsequently work to improve them – our shallow discourse will only remain problematic.