Treating staff as family: the Asian difference

One of the most remarkable lessons our Asian heritage gave us, is the importance of a family unit. The Asian family puts at the forefront principals such as respect, care and life long protection. To an Asian family, to protect and look after family members is an honourable charge. A responsibility not taken lightly.

This is the difference between us and the hire & fire attitude of Western companies.

To understand the philosophy behind this, we spoke with Melissa Tan, the General Manager behind Wah & Hua Pte Ltd. The waste management company was built from scratch in the 80s, even before the words “startup” and “recycling” were even a thing. Armed with an old garbage truck and determination, the founder of the company collected discarded material. Working 18 hour days and 7 day weeks, Wah & Hua Pte Ltd took shape and over the years became one of Singapore’s more established names in the waste management business.

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The most important piece of the Wah & Hua business fabric, are the people. Yet people are also the trickiest component of any business. People are difficult to manage, are emotionally volatile and be unwilling to cooperate with you.

Let’s take for example, skills upgrading and implementation of technology. These moves require a receptive attitude to change and innovation within a company. Some workers, especially older workers, are not receptive to new technology. If faced with having to adapt, some would rather leave the job.

“10 years ago when the government implement workplace safety, there would be a lot of resistance from the staff”, said Melissa. They would refuse (or “forget”) to wear their safety helmets and boots, getting co-operation is a challenge. The order of the day was tough love. “I introduced a system of fines. If we catch you twice, we’ll take pictures for proof. On the third strike you’ll be fined $10!”

The money is then accumulated and at the end of the year, we have a party with money. Everyone benefits. “I told them they could scold me all they want, at the end of the day they’re the ones benefiting from a safe environment”.

Melissa and Roxie from Wah & Hua
Melissa and Roxie from Wah & Hua

Following national policies implemented to limit foreign manpower, Wah & Hua is also facing hiring issues.

“It is not a sexy industry”, admits Melissa. “There is a stigma that this is an unglamorous job. From drivers to office administrators, manpower for all positions are not easy to find.” The company had tried targeting people of various demographics and skill sets. Old, young, male, female. They’ve tried newspaper recruitment, ex-convicts, hiring from special needs schools, handicap associations…all have turned out negative.

There also isn’t technology yet that will help them reduce manpower costs substantially. The company still needs good old drivers to load, unload and transport the large amounts of waste from all over the island each day. The sorting of rubbish still requires human effort.

“We just have to pay well”, shrugged Melissa. That they do cheerfully; because of their family-approach to managing staff, the company doesn’t pinch pennies when it comes to salaries and welfare. The average salaries of all the staff is about $2k and unless they’re taking on non-compulsory over time, they follow office hour timings.  Hardworking drivers whom are motivated to start earlier and end later can earn up to $4k a month.

Salaries alone aren’t enough to attract people to work with them. Wah & Hua is fortunate to have built a strong brand from a 30 year corporate history. Many of the staff are attracted to the strength of its name and their commitment to workers, hence staff turnover rates are very low.

“I don’t see myself as a ‘boss’, or ‘the bosses daughter’. Whatever my workers are doing, I join them and talk to them”

“I believe communication is an integral component of corporate success, so i talk a lot!”

The company assures staff that it isn’t just about work and that the organisation is committed to carving out career progression for them; including sending them for training and self improvement courses.

“We may have over a hundred workers, but bear in mind that each worker feeds an average of 4 mouths back home”,

“Do you see what keeps us going? It is the worker and their families that drives us to perform so that rewards can be shared with everyone”.

Now that is how an Asian corporation embodies the spirit of family and care. We are not merely commodities to be hired and fired to the selfish benefit of a corporation. We are family, we take care of each other and we help each other improve.

“I want to tell you story of one of our drivers, Mr. Yeo”

Mr. Yeo was one who had worked with Wah & Hua for a very long time. Several years ago, the man suffered a stroke. He was fearful. His physical condition was not good, the doctor even wrote to the traffic police to have his driving licence revoked his driving licence. He was fearful. As the sole breadwinner of the house and with children still in primary school, Mr. Yeo had much reason to worry.

“We put his heart to rest – we assured him that when he recovered, he doesn’t need to be a driver. The company maintained his salary and let him chose what he would like to do. He is now redeployed as a security guard!”

Wah & Hua puts the workers at the heart of all they do. It is the knowledge that workers and their families rely on the company for survival that keeps the company growing and breaking new grounds.

“We are all equals in this company. If we are faced with problems, we’ll talk it through. It is this philosophy that keeps us in business year after year, decade after decade”, says the feisty boss.

 

 

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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