Straits Times: War of words over low-wage workers

Budget debate

WP’s Low and PAP MPs cross swords on foreign worker policy


Mr Low (left) wanted the foreign worker levy scrapped and blamed the Government for not lifting the lot of low-wage workers.

A WAR of words between Mr Low Thia Khiang and People’s Action Party MPs erupted yesterday when the Workers’ Party chief attacked the Government, saying its policies have done little to lift the lot of low-wage workers over the years.

Blaming especially its foreign worker policy, he suggested that the levy for hiring them be scrapped and employers be allowed to employ fewer of these workers.

In his 20-minute speech, the Hougang MP lashed out at the strategy of maximising growth in the past decade, pointing out that it has caused salaries of low-income workers to stagnate and, in turn, widened the income gap.

“When the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) has to be revised upward and the qualifying monthly income limit increased to $1,700 to ensure low-wage earners are not left behind in our foreigner-dependent economy, doesn’t that raise an alarm in the Government about the meagre salary our low-wage workers are getting?” he said. “The growth strategy… for the past 10 years has definitely not made these Singaporean workers feel any sense of progress with the nation.”

He placed the responsibility for helping the low-income achieve higher wages on the Government’s shoulders. “It is easy to blame our local workforce for low productivity but who opened the gates to allow foreign workers to flood the labour market in the first place?” he said.

“Easy access to cheap foreign labour offers little incentive for companies to up their productivity… The Government has to assume some responsibility for the low productivity in the last decade.”

He wanted the Government to improve their pay soon and not wait for productivity gains to reach the target set in 10 years. “How long more must our low-wage workers wait to enjoy a First World pay?” he asked.

On the foreign worker levy, he argued the savings from doing away with it, coupled with a reduced dependency ratio, could be used by the company to provide employment for local workers, upgrade the production process or send local workers for training.

“The reduced dependency ratio will force employers to look hard at how to reskill and make Singaporean workers productive instead of looking to relatively lower-cost foreign workers as an option to compete in the market.”

PAP MPs, especially those from the labour movement such as Mrs Josephine Teo (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) and Mr Seng Han Thong (Yio Chu Kang), slammed his ideas.

Both accused him of ignoring government measures like Workfare to supplement the income of low-wage earners.

Mrs Teo and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) also criticised his levy suggestion.

“Without the levies, foreign workers are even cheaper and even more attractive to businesses. And some of these businesses will find loopholes to get round the quotas, to get more of the cheaper foreign workers,” said Mrs Teo.

Ms Ng added that any move to tighten the dependency ratio as a way to raise workers’ wages could also lead to higher cost of living for consumers.

Mr Low jumped up to respond several times during the debate.

On help for low-wage workers, he said that despite measures like Workfare, “the fact remains that the low-wage worker remains low-wage… So is the Government going to be happy to say, ‘Okay, I’ve given you some assistance and thereby you remain low wage?'”

On the labour MPs’ assertions that he did not offer alternatives, he said in Mandarin: “What solution do they have?… Maybe they don’t even have their own views because they are members of the Government and NTUC.”

As this is the Year of the Tiger, Mr Low used a Chinese proverb “hu jia hu wei” – a fox assuming a tiger’s identity – to describe the labour MPs. It meant they had borrowed someone else’s authority.

As for ditching the levy, he said it had “become an opium, opium for the Government because it collects money from the levy, opium for the businesses because it’s a soft option for them”.

On Ms Ng’s point that higher wages lead to higher cost of living, he said: “That could happen… But can we say that because we’re worried about the cost going up, then we… want a section of our society to continue to be impoverished?

“Is it fair?”

Posted in 2010 03. Comments Off on Straits Times: War of words over low-wage workers
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