Workers’ rights: 12 years of near negative wage growth for almost all workers?

There were four stories about foreign workers in the Sunday Times of 9 December.

… “Forum sees lively debate over workers’ concerns”

… “Levelling the playing field for workers”

… “Driving the S’porean dream”

… “Foreign labour remains a hot topic”

Erosion of workers’ rights?

I was particularly struck by the first article which said, “Other speakers criticised what they felt were weaknesses in Singapore’s labour laws.

Think Centre’s Mr Sinapan Samydorai argued that changes to the laws over the decades had “eroded” basic workers’ rights and curtailed the powers of trade unions”.

Erosion of fair wages?

Workers’ rights aside, I believe what most workers may be most concerned is their “right to work for a fair wage” (Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Simplified Version) (UDHR)). A UDHR booklet was given to attendees of the “SMRT Bus Drivers Strike – Why should we care?” Forum on 8 December.

In this connection, perhaps the second article gives a hint as to how poorly Singapore workers may have fared in this regard, as it said, “It is no coincidence that most local low-wage workers toil in industries that depend on foreign migrants.

As of earlier this year, there were around 110,000 locals who earned less than $1,000 a month – excluding employer’s CPF contributions – despite working full-time, though their numbers have dwindled in the past two years. Some, like cleaners, have quietly battled both rising costs of living and falling wages.”

As the venue of the forum was next to the National Library, I popped by to see what I could find about the wages of Singapore workers.

To my horror, what I found was shocking.

Using the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) statistics cited in David Wan and Ong Chin Huat’s paper “Compensation systems in Singapore” (July/August 2002) and the MOM’s Occupational Wages 2011, the median monthly basic wages for the eight occupational categories in 1999 and 2011 were as follows:-

Median Monthly Basic Wages            1999 ($)   2011 ($)   Increase (%)

Cleaners, Labourers & Related Workers 1,015       900           – 11

Service & Sales Workers                                  1,175          1,414                 20

Associate Professionals & Technicians        2,210          2,700                 22

Clerical Support Workers                                 1,515          1,900                 25

Craftsmen & Related Trades Workers           1,500          1,900                 27

Managers                                                           5,099          6,451                 27

Professionals                                                     3,350          4,380                 31

Plant & Machine Operators                            1,108          1,472                 33

(Note: the above occupational categories are ranked in the order from the lowest increase in wages to the highest over the 12 years)

Most jobs near negative wage growth after 12 years?

After adjusting for inflation, I estimate that the real wage growth in the last 12 years or so, was negative for 4 of the 8 occupational categories, and only around 0.5 per cent or less per annum for the other 4 categories. (Note: I believe the Department of Statistics’ inflation data is for the full year, whereas the wages data is for the mid-year in June)

For example, the basic wages of Cleaners, Labourers & Related Workers declined by – 11 per cent over the 12 years, and that for Service & Sales Workers increased by only 20 per cent in nominal terms, before inflation.

After adjusting for inflation, I estimate that these two groups’ real wage growth was negative at about – 3 and – 0.4 per cent per annum, respectively.

For Plant & Machine Operators who had the highest increase of 33 per cent in the 12 years, I estimate that the real increase was only about 0.6 per cent per annum.

So, isn’t the above clear evidence that the rights of Singapore workers, at least from a wage perspective, has been eroded over the years?

The labour movement and the tripartite movement need to do more to prevent the continuing erosion of workers’ wages, which are arguably linked to the erosion of workers’ rights.


Leong Sze Hian

About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.