Workers’ rights forum expose labour policy faultlines

Singapore Democrats

Political party and civil societyrepresentatives shared a platform on Sunday to address a forum on thesecurity implications of the government’s labour policy.$CUT$

Addressing an audience of mostlynewcomers to the debate, panel speakers SDP’s Vincent Wijeysingha,analyst Leong Sze Hian, Maruah president Braema Mathi and NSP memberTony Tan took the forum through the key concerns arising from theSMRT industrial action.

Speaking first, Dr Wijeysingha arguedthat an economy so dependent on the cheap labour option, what hetermed the PAP’s comparative advantage, carries concerns about thelong-term stability of the economy.

He noted that about half of thenation’s economy is based on manufacturing and lower-end servicesand that a quarter of our workforce subsist on wages less than thepoverty level of $1,500.

Dr Wijeysingha, who is also SDPTreasurer, noted that the government’s handling of the SMRT strikebelies its confusion over economic fundamentals. He warned that agovernment struggling to understand the concerns of the people whilesubjecting them to systematic wage decline over ten years coupledwith rapidly rising prices and severely limited means of expressingconstitutional dissent are a recipe for long-term problems.

He pointed out that a government whichsystematically refuses – or is unable – to engage with thechallenges of the moment is a government that is rapidly running outof ideas.

Analyst Leong Sze Hian, whosestatistical analyses of policy outcomes regularly embarrasses thegovernment, supported Dr Wijeysingha’s argument, noting wryly,”Twelve years of negative wage growth is economic security? Myfoot!”

He called government policy a tickingtime bomb: most of the policy responses to current challenges haveonly made matters worse.

Mr Leong identified that even ifaccommodation and the foreign worker levy are factored into the costof hiring migrant workers, they are still 25 percent cheaper to localworkers. The labour policy is, therefore, not working and localworkers are faced with a “triple whammy” of low wages, theabsence of a minimum wage, and alarmingly rising prices.

Ms Braema Mathi suggested that thegovernment’s longevity has been based on its compact with thecitizens. However, she asked, if there is no compact with migrantworkers, who make up about half of the total workforce, theramifications for social stability are profound since such a largeproportion of workers has the potential to upset the stability wetake for granted.

Mr Tony Tan, an NSP Council Member,rounded up the debate by noting that foreigners contribute up to 48percent of GDP. Should Singapore ever enter into diplomaticdifficulties with the People’s Republic, how would we cope since wehave such a large proportion of Chinese workers in the economy?

He suggested that the government hasnot addressed the fundamental issues but has only been content totinker with policy here and there. “If we continue along this line,we will incrementalise ourselves to oblivion,” he observed.

In answering audience questions later,Dr Wijeysingha suggested that the principal way to meet thechallenges head on is to give people an increased voice inpolicymaking in a widened socio-political space so that news ideasand methods can bubble up.

The fundamental freedoms of speech,association and assembly, which the PAP has withdrawn in return forsocio-economic wellbeing, should be returned to the people. Greatdisparities of wealth and what he termed “royal deafness” werewhat eventually brought down other societies in history.

The forum was organised byOnlineOffline, an initiative of bloggers to stimulate discussion oncurrent affairs, and moderated by Mr Ravi Philemon.

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