I chanced upon Alex (not his real name) during my door-to-door visit to residents last Saturday, after our PSP team had finished sharing festivities with Muslims and Christians at Boon Lay Place Market. We distributed dates and chocolates to residents of both faiths. The beauty of living in a multireligious and multicultural society is that we can celebrate Aidil Fitri and Easter almost simultaneously.
However, Alex does not have much to celebrate over certain aspects of his life. He works as a chef (senior cook) to support his two children and wife. His wife takes care of her two children at home, one of whom is autistic. He is a good example of a hardworking Singaporean who is struggling financially. He shared how his nine-year-old daughter was unable to receive proper speech therapy in her earlier years and may live with the handicap for the rest of her life.
He said the large number of foreign workers in the local F&B sector has depressed wages in the sector. Even though he has been in his job for 20 years, which includes managing a few junior cooks, he was paid only $4,000 plus per month while he was at NTUC Foodfare. He only finally got his break six months ago when he joined another restaurant chain, where he got a substantial pay rise to $5,000 plus per month. He attributed his “luck” partly to his skills being recognized and the current manpower shortage in the sector.
Alex was particularly vocal about the low salaries and long working hours in the F&B sector. The starting salary for cooks working under him at NTUC Foodfare was previously only $1,300 per month but raised to $1,400 after he left. This monthly salary of $1,400 is below the $1,750 level that a NUS study said was required for a local person to live decently in Singapore. In addition, these cooks work 12-hour days. It is no wonder that locals are shunning the F&B sector and becoming food delivery riders for higher wages and more flexible working hours.
The tripartite partnership of government, NTUC and employers should take this manpower shortage in the F&B sector as an opportunity to 𝙧𝙚𝙗𝙖𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙘𝙚 the distribution of economic benefits in favour of the workers, i.e. raise their wages, rather than allow another influx of foreign workers to depress wages again.
A minimum living wage is long overdue in the F&B sector for entry-level workers. On top of that, there should be policies to ensure hardworking Singaporeans like Alex have room to advance in their career. If not for the current manpower shortage, there is a likelihood that Alex would be earning at least 20% less than his current salary. As a society, we can definitely do better for our local workers and ensure all local workers and professionals progress in their careers.
Singaporeans deserve better!