By Cai Haoxiang
SINGAPORE - When it comes to boosting their wages, workers are ready to learn but bosses have to take the lead, said Stephen Lee, president of the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).
Not enough companies are actively pushing for productivity improvements, he told reporters on the sidelines of the labour movement's May Day rally yesterday.
"The government has many schemes already there waiting to be tapped . . . and the workers' attitude is 'I am prepared to change the way I work but tell me how'".
"The lead of the productivity movement is squarely on the shoulders of management," Mr Lee said.
But small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) say they are too busy or cannot spare workers for training, he said. "Some tell us honestly, we really don't know how to go about it," he added.
"They are more concerned about operational issues . . . so we have to get them over this and take the medium-term view."
Based on tax returns filed last year, about 25,000, or one in three small companies - defined as those with $10 million in turnover or less - claimed the Productivity and Innovation Credit.
This is a tax deduction scheme for companies which invest in productivity boosting measures such as automation machinery or training.
The take-up rate can be improved, said Mr Lee.
But convincing bosses to undertake productivity improvements is a "difficult task". Management will have to be shown success stories, and outreach done across trade chambers and associations, he said.
Mr Lee added that productivity improvements are important because only then can wages go up along with it.
He referred to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's rebuttal of Lim Chong Yah's proposal to push wages of low-income workers up by 50 per cent over three years.
Said Stephen Lee: "We identify with the issue and problem of low-wage workers but the solution is not what Lim Chong Yah proposed.
"So maybe this can put an end to it," he said, adding that productivity and wages should go up in tandem.
But he said that employers will also do their part for society and raise the pay of low-wage workers to acceptable levels.
Some companies only have a few low-wage workers and can afford higher increases, but others will not be able to afford a double-digit increase, he said.
At the rally, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general Lim Swee Say also said employers and workers should not think their labour and wage problems will always be solved with a "Q.E.D.".
They think it is "quite easily done" to continue letting in more foreign workers, or push up wages first in the hope that productivity improvements follow.
But citing examples from the real world of "C.B.D.", or "can be done", Mr Lim said many companies overcome their challenges and boost productivity and profits, make Singaporeans the core of their workforce, and attract mid-career professionals to enter.
For example, precision engineering company Makino Asia invested in various technologies and hired a range of older workers, baby boomers and younger workers, thus boosting their local workforce to 80 per cent, from 60 per cent 10 years ago.
United Overseas Bank has a management associate programme to groom younger workers, and most of its senior management are locals, he said.
And preschool operator NTUC First Campus retrained a diploma holder who was retrenched in 2001 from her engineering job. She became an assistant teacher in 2002 and a principal in 2010.
This article was first published in The Business Times.