I recall, when I first joined the Labour Movement in 2011, that during my engagements with the Building Construction And Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU) members (of whom many were cleaners), I was appalled that there were cleaners who were still earning $600 a month. This was exactly the same salary my father earned when he was working as a street cleaner 30 years ago! To add salt to wound, many were only getting the minimum statutory employment benefits. I can still remember them lamenting over their situation and asking, “Can the union help us?”.
I was quite dumbfounded by how the industry could be in such a state. This was the result of cheap sourcing by service buyers and price undercutting by service providers — just some of the unhealthy practices in the cleaning industry.
NTUC, together with funding support from the government, pushed for service buyers to adopt ‘best sourcing’, which could help increase productivity and lead to workers earning better wages. Unfortunately, progress was painfully slow, and in fact too slow to have any significant impact on the industry as a whole. It was like trying to move a mountain with our bare hands!
A breakthrough came in 2012 when the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners (TCC) recommended the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), spearheaded by NTUC, for the cleaning industry. The cleaners, in 2014, and some as early as 2012, had a big push in their salaries because the adoption of the PWM was made mandatory by the government. The PWM ensured the cleaners’ salaries were commensurate with their skills, productivity and job responsibilities. It also was able to incentivise the cleaners to go for training to improve their skills, leading to higher productivity and thus allowing them to move up the wage ladder.
More, however, needs to be done. This month, I was at an NTUC event organised to show appreciation to cleaners when one of the cleaners there asked me, “Sir, many cleaners have worked at the same place for many years but, every time we are hired by a new employer, our annual leave is reset back to seven days and our salary is reduced. Can you please do something?” Furthermore, while many workers look forward to their pay cheques in December because of the ‘13th’ month bonus, very few cleaners get that additional wage supplement. It is heartbreaking to explain to these cleaners why they are not getting their 13th month bonus. It is also common to be asked why they are not getting the $60 increase despite the recommendations by the National Wages Council. “Can you please help?” is usually how the conversation would end.
The cleaning industry needs another wave of breakthroughs to address the cleaners’ rightful hopes of being given annual increments and bonuses like many other workers. The TCC, after numerous focus group discussions and countless negotiations, is in the final stage of finalising its recommendations which will address the issue of annual increments and payment of annual bonuses. Some may see these recommendations as a half-step but, it is a BIG half-step.
A FULL step forward happens when our cleaners are not worse-off working at the same place or building even if there is a change in the cleaning service provider. Who can make this happen? You! Can it be done? YES! We can learn from how it was done in the public transport industry.
Recently, the public transport industry wanted two major players to take over and operate some routes. There was intervention by the government, unions and other stakeholders to safeguard the workers. Simply, it was made explicitly clear that any interested parties to the tender had to fulfil three conditions:
1. All affected employees must be offered a job by the incoming operator.
2. Affected employees must be offered employment terms which are not worse off than that they enjoyed before the transition; and
3. Affected employees can choose to join the new operator, or be redeployed by their current employer where feasible.
If such conditions or reassurances can be given to cleaners when there is a possible change in cleaning contractor, it will be a GIANT FULL STEP forward for the welfare of cleaners! Will doing this be easy? Definitely not! Service buyers must be prepared to pay higher costs; end-consumers may end up paying more when the cost is passed down; service providers will find it challenging to retain their good workers if they lose a contract; and the list goes on and on. But this would be a positive change that would have a major impact on our most vulnerable group of workers.
We all can do our part to help our cleaners. As a society, if we want our cleaners to have better pay for them to live better lives, I call on all industry stakeholders to search their conscience and do the right thing.
Can we help them, please?
This is a post by National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Assistant Secretary-General and Chairman of the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners (TCC), Zainal Bin Sapari. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 8 December 2016.