In this two-part audio story, TWC2 vice-president Alex Au speaks with volunteer and executive committee member Christine Pelly who, one Sunday morning, met a gardener working in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. The gardener was a migrant worker from India and Christine was shocked to learn of his salary.

He said he was paid $14 Singapore dollars a day with a $7 allowance. The basic rate of $14 per day is just $1.75 per hour. By comparison, the minimum wage in the UK starting from April 2023 will be £10.42 per hour. In Australia, it is $21.38 Australian dollars per hour, starting July 2022.

Whilst we do not know, in the case of these workers at the Botanic Gardens, what their daily expenses are, given Singapore’s cost of living even for migrant workers (think: bus fare, data plans, soap) their daily wage is extremely low. If they have to co-pay for their housing – and some employers make their workers co-pay by a few hundred dollars a month – it gets seriously worse.

The gardener will be able to afford three slices a day, or half a pizza, from this Pezzo outlet in a food court, assuming he does not spend on anything else.

There is a common misconception among Singaporeans that employers of foreign workers are required to provide meals to them. Except for domestic workers, this is not true. All other migrant workers in non-domestic sectors have to get their own food. Whilst migrant workers getting meals from caterers who specialise in such provisions find themselves paying less than Singaporeans pay at, say, our food courts or hawker centres, for the typical worker it still means having to fork out about $150 a month.  It also means that the quality of food they get is generally poor.

Singapore’s Botanic Gardens is a UNESCO Heritage-listed site.

A migrant worker (not the one we met) watering Singapore’s national flower, the orchid hybrid Vanda Miss Joaquim. He agreed to the picture being taken and put on a smile too.

It is not clear whether these men are direct employees of the Gardens; more likely than not they are employees of contractors engaged to provide gardening services. And that is where the problem lies: the tendency to award contracts primarily based on the bid price. This price pressure cascades into depressed and exploitative wages for the employees concerned. It could be argued that, given the cost of living in Singapore, $14 is below what could reasonably be considered a living wage. As Christine points out, we need to go beyond the simple idea that “cheap is good”.

The interview continues in this second part.

The situation is embarrassing and Singapore should be setting a much better example, says Christine in summary.