Productivity & fairness – You cannot have one without the other

September 6, 2012
Singapore Democrats

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Alvin Ong

There has been a lot of talk lately about productivity – we are being exhorted to raise our productivity as the only possible alternative to being swamped by low wage migrant workers. This can be a good thing.

Productive labor markets can deliver more wealth to our country and to the workers ourselves. An efficient, well organized workplace is not only a source of income, it is also a channel for social interaction and place where we can develop a sense of personal worth.

Workers want conditions to suit their aspirations with realistic promotion time-lines so our family needs are met. Most important, we want to feel safe and respected in our workplaces.

For employers, they require their workers to suit the particular requirements of their specific enterprises.

However, often many old fashioned practices such as “office politics”, “credit thievery” and “rigid chain of command” adversely affect productivity, innovation and effective communication. Instead, the interests of workers and their employers should be protected in a transparent manner as they are intimately connected.

While we seek to have minimal government intervention in the operations and decision making of industries, there is always the need for the government to oversee industry. This is to ensure that both workers and employers are not exploited. Work should not be an adversarial zero-sum game. Workers and employers should ideally work together for the good of society.

In the opinion of this author, some ways for this kind of employment relationship to be sustainable includes:

  • Conditions of pay should be reviewed annually or even six-monthly. This should be done in a transparent fashion so that profits can be shared and consideration can be given to the cost-of-living of the workers. This is only fair and can be accomplished through cutting down unnecessary wastage and improving administrative activity. This will give workers a greater sense of “ownership” in the well being of the company if they really feel that they have a stake in how well the company does.
  • Conditions of work should be review at the same time as remuneration. This way  ground issues such as resources, manpower shortages, safety hazard and others will not be overlooked. Ideally, the rigid chain of command should be relaxed so that in any case if middle management fails to deliver, the overall communication between the ground workers and the leadership will not be compromised. This has been achieved in some of the most progressive and democratic companies and societies. The alternative is an authoritarian leadership which is not sensitive to issues on the ground with often very serious consequences later on.
  • Rotation of administrative staff should be done periodically so as to prevent the building up of office politics and allow a wider exposure for middle management while protecting the interests of workers and the company. Similarly, the leadership should take a greater role in interviews and recruitment to reduce the distance between the senior leadership and the actual activities of the workforce on the ground.
  • Above all, workplace fairness should not be ignored. It is well-established that the most productive workforce is a workforce in which individual contributions are well recognized and rewarded. Again, the senior leadership needs to be able to appreciate the contributions of the workers without the filter of the middle management. This will ensure that credit (and blame!) are correctly attributed without the widespread “credit thievery” that often goes on.
  • For large government sectors, civil servant should be allocated to workplaces near their homes. This will not only increase productivity, it will also reduce traffic congestion and crowded conditions of our public transport. Work-life balance will also benefit.

The unifying theme in these recommendations is that employers beginning with the civil service which is the largest employer in Singapore need to recognise the importance of workplace fairness. Without workplace fairness, increasing productivity can easily degenerate into another form of exploitation. Singaporean workers already work the longest hours in the developed world for among the lowest wages. This has to change.


Alvin Ong is a member of the Young Democrats and coordinates the Technical Communications of the SDP’s communications Unit.