Thou Shall Not Make Me Work Beyond 72 Hours

In a recent survey commissioned by the Union of Security Employees, a sizeable number of security officers who responded to the survey cited the long working hours as the core aspect of their job that they disliked. Ideally, security officers should have the choice of working 44 hours per week as prescribed in the Employment Act, but the current reality is that many of them are required to work up to 12 hours a day for six days a week to meet market demands.

In a month, many security officers are clocking up to 95 hours of overtime. Under the Employment Act, employers cannot allow their workers to work more than 72 hours of overtime per month.  An overtime exemption (OTE) permit must be granted by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before an employer can deploy their workers to work more than 72 hours of overtime per month. In approving OTE, MOM takes into consideration factors such as the employee’s consent, the company’s track record for safety, health and employment standards and the agreement of unions in the case of unionised companies. OTE was originally conceived to allow companies to get their workers to work beyond the 72 hours of overtime limit, to cater for situations where there is a tight deadline for projects to be completed or to meet heightened security needs for large-scale/important events. It was not intended to be a crutch to address manpower shortages in any sector as it is now prevalent in the security industry.

Long working hours and relatively unattractive employment terms and benefits have made it a challenge for employers to attract younger workers to join the private security industry. In a month, many security officers are clocking up to 95 hours of overtime.

Long working hours detrimental to workers’ health and well-being

A United Kingdom-based medical journal found that people who work more than 55 hours per week have a 33 per cent greater risk of stroke and a 13 per cent greater risk of coronary heart disease. In another research, it was found that employee’s productivity falls sharply after a 50- hour work week. In fact, there is little difference in productivity for someone who works 55 hours per week as compared to someone who puts in 70 hours. Longer hours have also been correlated with a high rate of absenteeism and employee turnover. Long working hours can have serious adverse outcomes on balancing work and family life, resulting in poor relationships with family members, with possible negative effects on children’s emotional and intellectual development.

The security industry is one of the key sectors that is developing an Industry Transformation Map. Given the long working hours and relatively unattractive employment terms and benefits for unarmed private security officers, it would be a challenge for employers to attract younger workers to join this industry. Ensuring that working hours of the security officers are reduced to a more reasonable level is one of the key challenges that must be addressed.

What can we do about this?

In the report released by the Security Tripartite Committee on the proposed Progressive Wage Model (PWM) in 2014, a recommendation was made to review the OTE provision in 2017 to improve working conditions of security officers.

Should the policy of granting security agencies OTE be discontinued? While removing OTE will reduce the average working hours from 72 to 60 hours per week (which are still long working hours!), at least our security officers can have longer rest periods or more family time. Unfortunately, removing OTE will not be straightforward as there will be implications on various stakeholders. If OTE is discontinued, security agencies, providing 24/7 security services, need to hire more security officers to allow for shorter working hours, but they are concerned that there are not enough security officers to go around. Security agencies are concerned that the OTE removal may result in them being unable to deploy security officers on their contracted sites and thus, lead to them being imposed liquidated damages by their clients.

Some industry players highlight that unless there are more people joining the industry, or unless the Government allows foreign workers from non-traditional sources to be brought in, removing OTE would result in a serious shortage of private unarmed security officers. However, the Government has explained that it needs to reduce reliance on foreign manpower and this position is unlikely to change.

Turn to technology then?

Higher wage costs, persistent demand for security services and manpower constraints mean that the cost of procuring security services will continue to rise. How can this be contained? Recently, there has been a strong push to encourage security agencies and service buyers to reduce headcount, and become more productive and manpower-lean through greater adoption of technology. This move also presents itself with its own set of challenges.  A strategy aimed at reducing headcount may not be welcomed by some security agencies whose profits are mainly derived by the number of people deployed on the ground. The more security officers they deploy, the more profits they make.

Enlightened private security agencies which are open to using technology to reduce headcount may also face challenges. The contract period awarded by the service buyers may not be long enough to enable them to recoup the cost of investing in security technology at the worksite. Even if the security technology installations are done by the service buyers, security agencies will not have the flexibility to reduce headcount to improve efficiency because they are constrained by the manpower required to operate the pre-installed security equipment.

Rethink possibilities

While there are some implications to reducing OT hours, they are not insurmountable. We should not use excuses like manpower shortage to avoid taking action on this issue. Rather, we should try to think outside the box to find solutions to the manpower problems facing this industry, including, for example, relooking at the security requirements of various sites.

About 20 per cent of our security officers today are deployed at residential projects like private condominiums. Reducing the need for these security officers will help to curb the shortage sharply. In fact, there is a slew of security solutions that can reduce the need of having private security officers deployed on the MCST grounds. Fewer security officers would be needed at private condominiums using a centralised security monitoring system aided by extensive use of surveillance cameras strategically placed to ensure the condominium is secured. Any site emergency will then be attended to by a fast-response team that would arrive within an agreed time.

Even the traditional role of having security officers to man the vehicle entrance to the condominiums can be replaced by a visitor and vehicle management system, where information can be keyed in by the residents to allow visitors or vehicles to gain access to the premises.  In some condominiums, there are security officers carrying out the duties of a lifeguard as well. MCST management can explore other solutions like hiring a part-time lifeguard on weekends, which may probably be more cost effective and efficient.

One industry player suggested that one way to ensure that the industry can improve its productivity substantially is to procure both technology and headcount together, so that there will be greater synergy between “man and machine”. This is a prominent approach that the industry can take towards ‘smart buying’ practices.

Greater synergy between “man and machine” is needed to ensure that the industry can improve its productivity and reduce reliance on manpower. This entails procuring both technology and headcount together, as well as having a security risk assessment.

Another example of such a practice is also a possible solution of aggregating demand as many condominiums are located within close proximity of each other. Instead of each condominium’s management engaging different security providers, they could come together to buy a security solution for a group of condominiums. Initially, this may involve some coordination and agreement amongst the different management committees, but, once it is implemented, future buying of security services would be easier.

Having a security risk assessment may also help to reduce headcount. Currently, such security risk assessments are not required for most sites. Thus, many procurement officers or managing agents rely on past requirements, which are usually headcount based, when buying security services. The cost of doing a security risk assessment can be very costly but, it can be scoped to be more affordable especially for condominiums and smaller commercial buildings. Tripartite partners should come together to take ownership of this endeavour. Security officers freed-up from less risky sites can then be redeployed to other worksites with greater security needs based on a sound security risk assessment.

Students can be part of the solution too

Another industry player suggested that we could also encourage more tertiary students to work part-time as security officers. Helping them with the course fees may make it more attractive since students do not qualify for the SkillsFuture training grant. However, not many security agencies have explored this option. Perhaps, the industry could look at this source to ease the manpower crunch and learn from the F&B industry which has been engaging students for part-time employment.

Beyond part-time employment, there is a widespread perception that fresh graduates from the Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs) are ‘discouraged’ from entering the industry as they must take up the security officer’s license, even when they have completed security-related courses. With the PWM requirements, it is misunderstood that he or she needs to start as a security officer, and work his or her way up to be a senior security officer (SSO) to be able to work in a remote command centre. However, the Police Licensing & Regulatory Department (PLRD) has facilitated Tyco, a Central Alarm Monitoring System (CAMS) operator, to take in an SSO-level staff as a direct CAMS operator, subject to certain conditions. Therefore, PLRD is prepared to extend the same conditions to any other operators with similar requirements.

Concluding thoughts

The security industry has seen many significant changes that have leveled up the industry as seen through the introduction of many initiatives such as the private security officer license, PLRD’s grading system for security agencies, PWM and others. Addressing the problem of excessive OT hours will be another major step to improve the well-being of our private security officers. If industry stakeholders are willing to question their assumptions and think differently, I am confident we can achieve the desired outcome.

This is an issue that needs our attention. All stakeholders must come on board and resolve to confront the issues squarely for the sake of transforming this industry.

Zainal Sapari

This is a post by NTUC Assistant Secretary-General and Security Tripartite Cluster Chairman, Zainal Sapari. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 24 April 2017.