I try to explain what’s happening in the news to my children aged six and eight years. I think it’s important because we do not live in a bubble and events will affect us if not immediately, then eventually. You know, the butterfly effect and all.

It’s not easy because obviously the kids would rather create chaos with Lego pieces than listen to mummy attempt to expound upon some weird intangible theory. Coupled with the fact that I am neither politically-savvy nor intellectually-blessed, and that breastfeeding for seven years seems to have depleted most of the grey matter up there, these attempts at homeschooling the kids in general knowledge tend to fall flat.

But on 1 September this year a mountain moved and I thought this was an event worth talking to the kids about.

THE BACKGROUND OF PROGRESSIVE WAGE MODEL

“I sometimes feel like the process of bringing about big change for low-wage workers is akin to trying to move a mountain with your bare hands,” Labour MP Zainal Sapari said during the Budget debate in March last year (as quoted in this article).

At that time, he called for the Government to require companies in the cleaning, landscaping and security industries to adopt the labour movement’s Progressive Wage Model (PWM). Under the PWM, cleaning companies are required to have a skills and salary upgrade and career plan for their employees, or their business licenses will be revoked by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

On 1st September this year, the PWM for the cleaning industry was legislated. The mountain had moved.

As of 1st September, 1001 cleaning companies have received their licenses. Over 52,000 people employed by these companies will see their wages increase to a minimum of $1,000 for general cleaners.
Savings, increasing columns of gold coins and green plant
MORE THAN MINIMUM WAGE

I like it. It’s a model that benefits the lower-income workers continually throughout their working lives. The PWM works like a ‘step-up and move-on’ model. First, workers get a salary increase to the base salary — the ‘step-up’ part. They are then put on a career ladder which offers them training and skills upgrades. With these, they can progress to the next rung of their career plan and earn more — the ‘move-on’ part.

This makes it more than just a minimum wage model. The PWM goes above and beyond the minimum wage.

In a minimum wage model, the Government could legislate a wage for lower-income workers, and employers would have to pay their people that amount. But five years later, the workers could still be earning that same amount.

With the PWM, as workers upgrade their job skills and improve productivity, they move up the salary scale. Everyone benefits.

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT US?

Currently, the PWM affects the cleaning sector directly, although there are plans to roll it out to the landscape technicians and security officers at a later stage.

So why should you care? I asked to my Firstborn, who said, “Because the workers are on their feet for very long hours and the job is very hard.” Indeed. I can’t imagine there being much job satisfaction in clearing up other people’s slop for eight to 10 hours a day.

Perhaps it’s serendipity that the seed of the PWM was planted at a hawker centre. When he was the Minister for Environment and Water Resources in 2003, Lim Swee Say noticed that a cleaner would haul a pail of water and a dirty rag from table to table during one of his ground visits. He’d have to change the water in his pail quite frequently. The Minister made sure that cleaners were given uniforms and shoes (for safety), and also a trolley to carry their equipment, making their jobs less strenuous.

This gave rise to the idea of the PWM when he became the Labour Chief. Yes, you can probably say he’s the man behind the moving mountain.

PWM cleaners

Any plan that helps improve a person’s quality of work would probably improve his quality of life. Happier employees make for happier workspaces. Hopefully, it will eventually make for a better society for all.

Moving on, the PWM can be implemented to other industries too. In principle, all workers (including PMEs) can benefit from PWM, as their career development will become clearer with PWM, and there will also be support in terms of training and upgrading.

In the meantime, I ask the kids to do what they can to help the cleaners when we eat at food courts and hawker centres: by clearing their trays at food outlets, by eating cleanly so that the table and their trays are not in a mess by the end of the meal, and by greeting and thanking the aunties and uncles who swoop in to take over when they see the little ones trying to clear their own trays.

It’s a start, at least. Just like the PWM.

* See how PWM works. Watch this video explanation:

This article is part of a series of labour movement initiatives brought to you by NTUC.