At a dialogue held by the National University of Singapore’s Social Service Research Centre yesterday (18 Jul), Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah told the audience that the Singapore’s 4G leadership will continue to strengthen support for those who have less, and strive to ensure all have opportunities to improve their lives so as to tackle inequality.

“As Singaporeans, we must care for one another and look out for one another. Every Singaporean matters and we want all to do well,” she said.

“Singapore must always be a society of opportunities for all, throughout life, where everyone can progress irrespective of starting point; where all Singaporeans will have equal chance to seek better lives – to meet their aspirations and find happiness – regardless of background.”

Tackling inequality is also a matter of national interest, she said.

A member of the audience later told her he had noticed that quite a number of Singaporeans from low-income families are “gig” workers doing freelance work. This deprives them of benefits such as annual leave and Central Provident Fund contribution, and as a result, many face difficulties securing housing or planning for retirement, he said.

“Because like you, we are quite concerned with the gig economy which gives a kind of short-term income but, like you point out, it doesn’t build up your retirement reserves,” Ms Indranee replied.

She said those who cannot secure more permanent employment can go for trainings. They can be helped through schemes like SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow, she said.

“For those who are at a young age now, what you really hope is that when they become older, by the time they retire, they won’t be in a position where their reserves are low. So we’ll have to try and figure out a way to help them build up their reserves” she said.

Middle-income Singaporeans are also doing freelance “gig” work too

While Ms Indranee and her 4G team are trying to figure out a way to help low-income “gig” workers to build up their retirement reserves, it has been noticed that middle-income Singaporeans are increasing being forced to do freelance “gig” work too, especially those PMETs who have been retrenched.

Take for example, Shaun Ow, 39, who was working in the private sector for some 11 years in various industries before he was retrenched 4-5 years ago. He then tried to find a job for more than a year before giving up. He ended up driving Grab to make ends meet.

He told the media that he has been a private hire car driver for the last three-and-a-half years and manages to earn about $5,000 a month, after accounting for rental, fuel and other miscellaneous charges. But he has to work very hard, driving everyday for 12 to 14 hours non-stop. On average, he would be making 20 to 25 trips daily.

“Passengers sometimes think our job is easy – sitting in an air-conditioned environment is easy. But I always tell them: You find one weekend, have two one-hour breaks for lunch and dinner, and sit in a comfortable sofa for 12 hours just watching TV. You will feel sore backs, sore shoulders, sore necks, sore everywhere,” he said.

And of course, Mr Ow would not have any CPF contributions as a Grab driver.

No use going for trainings if government continues to “open door” for “foreign talents”

Some time ago, Prof Walter Theseira, an economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), noted that the take-home pay for private hire car drivers is “competitive” with the many entry-level jobs for educated younger workers. But he said that having a large number of young people driving Grab for the long term raises some issues.

“The jobs offer no career path and do not provide workers with significant marketable skills. This means that workers in such jobs will inevitably end up disadvantaged compared to their peers who are able to stay in jobs that offer a career path and the opportunity to build marketable skills,” he added.

“If workers are attracted to private hire driving and other ‘gig’ economy jobs and spend too long in them early on, their lifetime wages and career opportunities could be harmed significantly.”

“What we should really think about is why many of the jobs that employ our NITEC and poly diploma holders pay comparably or worse than the earnings achievable by gig economy workers. This doesn’t make any economic sense because NITEC and diploma holders actually have extensive training to perform a particular skilled job,” Prof Theseira further noted.

“These are workers who have received two to three years of specialist training. Why does the market pay them the same or less than a gig economy platform does for a job that requires virtually no training whatsoever?”

Actually, Minister Indranee and Prof Theseira don’t need to look far for an answer. It is embedded inside the MOM data:

Because the market can get cheaper “foreign talents” to work in companies, which helps to depress the salaries of Singaporeans, even if they have received two to three years of “specialist training” or whatever SkillsFuture trainings.

As long as the government continues to open the door for planeloads of foreigners to work in Singapore, more Singaporeans would be forced to do freelance “gig” work, which of course, would not help to contribute any cents towards their CPF account for retirement.