About cleaners: “I return my tray, later she no job!”

“Aiyah, return what tray? I return, later the aunty no job how?” – hands up, how many times have you heard this stupid remark?

A cleaner’s job involves more than one function: he/she will quite likely be doing equipment maintenance, machine operating, defect reporting…and yes, general cleaning and wiping. It is a lot of work and we know that they labour hard for a living. So, the question of “Should we do more to increase low-wage worker salaries”, demands nothing more than an idiot-proof reflex answer: yes.

But the cynical one might question – if they had not invested time and work in education earlier, why should society help them increase their salaries?  And how do their salaries affect us middle wage earners?

Education has a return on investment and education results in the development of skills. Businesses place high value on skills for the simple reason that it substantially increases their productivity and eventually, profit. Amongst the unfortunate segment of society, for reasons of chance, ability or disability, could not partake in education. Without skills, the value of their work is depressed.

You could say our capitalist society practices “skill bias”.

Broadly speaking, younger generations are better educated than older generations. This explains why there are larger numbers of elderly cleaners.

One feature of civil society is responsibility towards the welfare of citizens, especially the elderly and even those who are not contributing economically. In this slice of society, human resource is pretty much a commodity. This opens up the position to intense competition, both local and foreign. Without government intervention, these individuals will fall deeper into permanent unemployment.

Their jobs set an invisible equilibrium wage for the rest of society. If at the base, their wages are high, other pay-scales have to keep up. At the lower strata, if cleaner wages improve, then other manual work have to pay better to fight for human resource. With a higher salary, and strong national initiatives (such as the Workfare Training Support Scheme) to improve their skills, they have an opportunity to migrate into less physically taxing and better paying jobs.

Even bolder initiatives could include hiring “discouraged workers” (those who have been out of work for extended periods of time), the destitute and the disabled into public service. The Government could then set wage guidelines without having to enforce a minimum wage law. SPRING could incentivise projects or companies that develop new markets for unskilled workers.

Limiting foreign/migrant workers is only one piece of the low-wage puzzle. We need smarter policy making that increases human value, change public perception of unskilled workers and see more co-operation between people and Government and only then will we able to see real changes in the lives of the bottom percentile of wage earners.

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