Manpower woes and the failure of success

By KF Seetoh - Tuesday, Jan 14, 2014

Manpower…that one word that is currently set to dull the fire of entrepreneurism here. A rojak hawker in the west pays his very able assistant (if he bothers to show up) $150 a day. Sure, it’s an 11 hour day and he gets another $5 for makan each day he comes. All he does is cut, plate and serve. Of course there are “down hours” after lunch so it’s not as gruelling as say, washing crockery in a busy food court. That’s a cool $3600 per month if he just to shows up for 24 days a month. Add a $5 lunch money to that each day. “Wow” you say, but Mr Salam has serious problems getting people to work at his stall, adding “half the time, he don’t come and no others want the job.” His stall is getting more popular by the day as they get many good online reviews and media coverage. Success to him, is breeding a new problem…failure, because of the tight labour and manpower conditions in this city which directly affects his productivity and viability. Another restaurant, Sik Bao Sin, which recently opened their doors in the east, had resorted to a DIY cutlery and Chinese tea station. Although they have implemented a labour saving wireless ordering system, what little labour needed to operate that system, is not easily available too. The boss’s IFS (airline crew In-Flight-Supervisor) wife has to pitch in on her day off.


Dishwashers at Makansutra Gluttons Bay (file photo: Makansutra)


The government says this situation is important for us to adjust to a “new normal” in a changing economic environment. Of course, like the past leaders, they look as far ahead as possible when planning. So while on one hand, this flow of foreign labour to do so called laborious jobs are being tightened to a drip situation, it’s supposed to be a two barrelled bazooka – one, to adjust to a more stable employment situation with less transient workers (and its associated problems), and the other, to reserve as many of such jobs for Singaporeans. Truth is, not many are raising their hands eagerly over front end, necessary menial jobs. Really, are you raising your kids to clean tables and be a janitor? It’s more like being bosses of such companies. A recent official announcement was made about raising the salaries of cleaners here from the current $850 to $1000. The cleaners at our Makansutra Gluttons Bay had been paid way more for a long time already, but still, hardly any takers here. A taxi driver whispered to me in no soft tones, “I think they want the foreigner to become citizens or PRs at least. Not many women want to give birth too many times la. Very expensive and time consuming.” The government is planning a 6.9 million population in the coming years. Speculations or hopeful projections maybe, but it would be comforting if the authorities could simply clarify that burning question “Why don’t we let able and honest foreigners have the jobs that Singaporeans don’t want.”


Meanwhile, unless and until that happens (where there is a sudden or eventual abundance of front end labour available in our midst), SMEs or Small Medium Enterprise companies will struggle, wiggle and fight to survive. A local cleaning company has to retrench some Singaporean staff as they could not expand, ironically, not due to lack of business, but not enough reliable local cleaners to hire. The work permit quota conditions are impossible to meet, for him. You’ve noticed how some hawker centres are dirty with plates and bowls laid stacked on floors and tables – that’s when the workers don’t show up or when there are insufficient part-time cleaners for the day. Successful small companies can’t turn to medium ones because not many want those jobs they are offering. Burger stall boss Andrew Sim says on a related Facebook post, “Now, let’s just say that we have enough funds to sneak in a second outlet, but with no manpower, it all goes back to square one.” He has inexperienced Singaporeans asking for and unreasonable $12 and hour (part-time basis, when the norm hovers around $7) and still demand full benefits. Although another hirer Byron Shoh is willing to pay a bit more and take on inexperienced workers as “it’s attitudes, I look for” – there’s still no takers for jobs at his kopi-roti-kaya café in town. It’s an ugly front line sight. “I am operating a business that provides cheaper food for the masses, why, if no Singaporeans want it, am I not allowed to hire foreigners to provide here” questions Andrew Sim.


A reformed ex-convict waiter at Eighteen Chefs (file photo: Makansutra)


Social enterprise restaurant maverick Benny Se Teo (who runs the Eighteen Chefs chain) taps on an “untapped resource” for his hires – reformed and ex-convicts. Being a former jailbird himself, he knows how to deal with and nurture them. He has a pro Singaporean hire policy but also hires the occasional foreigner adding “but they are uncommitted and arrogant.”, and he does not depend on them. But not everyone has the belief, vision and skills of Benny.


Perhaps it’s a temporary blip that screams “hang-on, we are fixing things now”. But the market threshold for pain and tolerance is wearing thin. It is said to be a carpark problem, but recently, rules were implemented for new eateries along Joo Chiat – that it should only be for takeaways and no sit-ins. Maybe it’s in deference to the reality that you will have hiring problems for servers and washers or even cooks. It dulls that organic Joo Chiat fervour. Restaurateur Susan Leong has given up on responding to the Manpower Ministry’s request for feedback on the situation because “The last time I wrote to them not to bother to send me their surveys because they are not listening and understanding the problem and just wasting my time…”


Affluence of course has its attendant problems here. Ms Vidhya Nair in another Facebook post speaks about how, even at primary school level, they should instil pride in being a “skilled professional” not just all about academic brilliance. “The stigma that this is a low-paying, hard life job will dissipate if these jobs start adding value.” she adds. It may somewhat calm former hawker and now food court manager Tony Tee who bristled “Most parents do not want their children to be in this industry. This mindset also expands to other tradesman’s industries like electrician, plumbers, etc.”, but these are necessary and proud professions in any society that has arrived.


A migrant nation like Singapore grows with the strength, determination and resolve of its eclectic collection of people. Great ideas come from all walks of life, even the meek and the displaced have ideas. I think there will some sort of a solution to this “manpower hiatus” situation, as the current situation is not healthy for this exciting economy of ours ahead.