'Green men' hope to grow their pay

'Green men' hope to grow their pay

You see them trimming grass, pruning trees or planting fresh ones. These are people who keep Singapore pretty and can claim credit for its clean and green reputation. But there is an ugly side to the story of landscape workers here.

Mr Lee (not his real name), 59, prunes plants over a 200m stretch every day for eight hours - usually in the blazing sun. He has been doing this for 10 years, after he was retrenched from a toy factory. Over all these years, his pay has snaked up from $850 a month to $1,300. He used to take home $2,000 at the toy factory.

He does not expect too many youngsters to like his job. "Now, even study also, they study in aircon, then how can they take the heat?" he said.

The heat is now being turned up on employers in the industry to pay these workers better. My Paper has learnt that, last week, a tripartite cluster set up to discuss the need for a progressive wage model for the landscaping industry met for the first time.

This model sets career ladders with pay benchmarks. For several years, most workers in the sector have seen their pay stagnate at around $1,000 a month as companies go for "cheap-sourcing" as they compete on costs for contracts.

Sherlyn Ong, general manager of landscape company Swee Bee Contractor, said that paying workers better will require companies to put in tenders at a higher price.

"But if our tenders are too high, we risk not getting the contract. And if we don't get jobs, we can't survive," she said, explaining the dilemma.

Those who have more skills, such as operating equipment, may get 30 per cent more pay than others, she said.

She employs scores of low-wage workers, about 60 per cent of which are locals.

She added that such a wage model may attract more young Singaporeans.

One implication of this salary incentive, however, is that workers may switch jobs in search of more money.

Currently, the Singaporeans in the industry tend to be older, which also makes it harder for companies to pay them more, as their skills are often limited.

There are about 200 registered landscaping companies in Singapore, with the bulk of them catering to maintenance work like grass-cutting and plant pruning.

John Tan, chairman of the Landscape Industry Association here, said that an irony in the industry is that even as green spaces grow, the workforce is shrinking, and this has prompted players to explore mechanisation.

"A man sitting under a shelter and using a remote control to control a machine to trim the grass on a football field - this could become a reality here," he said. He has been in the industry for 20 years.

Using such equipment will help to alleviate the manpower crunch in the industry, he said, but pointed out the constraints.

"People think mechanisation makes things faster. But actually it doesn't. It relieves manpower to do other things."

For workers like Mr Lee, it may spell more cash. For Singapore, it means keeping its green image intact.

jalmsab@sph.com.sg


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