By William Chin

I was told that working in the marine industry is a lucrative segment, which pays higher than an average job. Economics 101 teaches that jobs that are dangerous would pay more than an average job to draw applicants. That is until one evening, when I meet the trio of Uddin Mohin, Md Azizuhaq, and Hosan Sulayman (the three are not related and were interviewed separately without them meeting each other). After meeting them, I am convinced that working in the marine segment can be a hazardous job, rife with exploitation. Given such risks, it is very unrewarding.

Take for instance Uddin Mohin (left in above picture). He is a plumber and pipe fitter by profession, working at Keppel Tuas. He is paid $15 per day, and earns from overtime S$2 per hour. Compare that with a part time worker as a service crew in F&B, where the pay is roughly $8 per hour. Uddin’s work is dangerous, as he has suffered injuries requiring medical treatment.

Prior to the accident — he’s out of work now — his total monthly salary averaged around $500. This figure is before deduction of room and board ($127), which left him with around $373.  He lived for the OT (overtime), where he would get additional income by clocking in more hours. But in recent months, work was getting scarcer, reducing his opportunity to top up his income. “Now OT very little”, he complains. Making his life more miserable, he would get “summons”, employer-imposed fines for the tiniest of transgressions.  This can be due to being late for work, or not having safety goggles. Although each fine might not be very large, they add up. “A bit, a bit summon,” though in a month, “Not more than $100”.  Understandably, discipline is important, but one can’t help wondering if the measures are too draconian, eating into the meager earnings of workers like Uddin.

Higher pay but at a price: Maybe an arm or a leg?

Hosan Sulayman (right, above picture) was slightly more fortunate. A welder and hose-cutter, he worked at Dynamic Shipyard, with a basic pay of S$19 per day (approximately $453 a month). Inclusive of over time pay, his total monthly salary was approximately $800.  You may say that Hosan is luckier than Uddin, if not for the thick bandage around his left arm. He suffered the injury when a hot pipe cause severe burns to his left forearm.

hosan_sulayman_5aA skin graft had to be taken from his left thigh to help patch up the arm.

There is also Md Azizuhaq who worked at Jurong Shipyard. His job was steel fitting, and he earned a basic rate of $18 per day (approximately $429 a month). To make enough to support his family, he had to work enormous amounts of overtime. Although he managed to make an average of $850 in gross salary, each month $130 was deducted for room and board. The net was around $720. He too suffered an injury when the jack he was working with broke and hit him at the hip and buttocks.  He incurred a hospital bill of $266 which he said was deducted from his pay.

Minimum Wage: Are we there yet?

Looking at the stories of these three men, they live for the overtime pay. There is the placement fee they have to recover (typically, workers pay $2,000 to $8,000 to obtain a marine sector job) and the monthly remittances they’re expected to send home.

Under the law, the maximum number of overtime hours per month is 72. There is a good reason for this: excessive overtime leads to fatigue, which increases the risk of accidents, injuring the worker himself or fellow workers at site. Hosan and Azizuhaq seemed to be regularly working (or asked to work by their employer) excessive overtime. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that both of them were working about 125 OT hours a month. There should a case for prosecuting the employers for such flagrant disregard for safety.

But if the men do not get enough overtime work, they don’t earn enough to support their families. Hence at the root of the problem is the extremely low basic wage.

Singapore has no minimum wage. The exception is in the cleaning industry and the security industry, where non-legislative efforts are being made to set customary minimum. But even in these sectors, it is not yet clear whether the base level applies only to Singaporean workers or whether it also applies to foreign workers.

To date, economists are divided whether minimum wage would increase unemployment or not. Since minds greater than mine have debated over this without a conclusion, I would not dare to step into this minefield.

However, even if a minimum wage were to be implemented, I would fear that people like Uddin, Hosan or Azizuhaq would not benefit from it. With protecting locals who can vote at elections likely to be the priority, I foresee great reluctance to include migrant workers within the ambit of any minimum wage. What is clear at present is that local employers are getting away with paying these workers a pittance, and cutting it further through rents or summons.  

The current situation is scant comfort to these workers. We pride ourselves after an impressive haul in the recent SEA games, and becoming a successful developed nation. Surely, mistreatment of foreign workers is not the record that we are looking for. The long arm of the law can be very effective when the government is focused on a goal. An example would be the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau breaking the back of corruption. How about targeting errant employers next?