Employers are still paying security guards a monthly basic salary of $800 - lower than what a cleaner earns.
This is at odds with calls by the National Wages Council and unions to lift the wages of the poorest-paid workers. Guards play an important front-line role in securing facilities, business premises and condominiums. In their way, they contribute to Singapore's reputation as a safe place, which is no small part of the Republic's attractiveness as a business and travel destination, to say nothing of it as a home.
Though the crime rate has dropped to a 29-year low, the need for round-the-clock surveillance remains relevant in many places.
What remains contentious is the appropriate dollar value to be put to the work of these guards, given perceptions of its relatively sedentary and low-risk nature. Employers baulk at rising security bills and to win tenders, security firms are loath to pay more wages. Hence the resistance by industry groups to attempts by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to gain wide support for a proposed $1,000 basic pay.
Security firms point out that their sector is special because the bulk of a guard's pay comes from overtime calculated on the basic pay. The two combined take average monthly salaries to $1,700, a not insubstantial amount. However, high overtime allowances depend on guards working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. This raises questions of both equity and efficiency.
Long hours and periods of quiet might make condo guards nod off - a sight that feeds the conviction they do not deserve higher pay. However, superficial perceptions of the nature of lowly paid jobs should not depress wages at the bottom when none can do without such workers.
The national labour movement is right therefore to press for this sector to be put on a par with the cleaning, transport and hotel sectors, where it has set pay benchmarks. Those performing essential services should not have to work excessively long shifts just to get a decent wage. For this to happen, those who benefit from the security they provide should be prepared to pay them well enough.
The NTUC's progressive wage model could hold the key to a better future for guards as it offers career "ladders" (which workers climb by gaining skills and being productive) and salary benchmarks to push their pay up.
The industry can help by training guards to perform their roles more effectively. They can add value by, say, taking note of safety issues that require attention. They can also serve tenants by receiving urgent dispatches or messages, rather than being hard and fast about their duties.
Such steps can help change mindsets that now stand in the way of a fairer and more sustainable deal for guards.
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