THE idea of equal pay for equal jobs held by foreigners is one the labour movement is not comfortable with, as it would be unfair to Singaporeans, labour chief Lim Swee Say said on Friday.
Weighing in on issues that have raised debate since a group of Chinese bus drivers went on strike recently, Mr Lim said at a press conference that Singaporeans should be paid more as they incur significantly higher expenses in supporting their families here.
In contrast, foreign workers send a bulk of their money back to their home countries, where the cost of living is much lower.
"Therefore, the labour movement, the unions have expressed a lot of concern," said Mr Lim, secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). "We are highly uncomfortable with this idea of same job, equal pay, because we feel that this will disadvantage our local workers and their families."
Instead, employers should pay "fair and reasonable wages", regardless of nationality, he said.
There are two other factors that account for disparities in how foreign workers are paid.
First, those from "traditional" sources like Malaysia are paid more as they tend to stay on in Singapore, renewing their work permits and eventually even taking permanent residency.
"Over the years, they are able to accumulate their expertise, their experience and are thereby able to add more value to the businesses... Therefore, they are treated differently from the non-traditional sources," he said.
Workers from non-traditional source countries like India and China, however, will tend to stay in Singapore only for a few years.
Second, workers of different nationalities have different strengths and skills sets. For instance, Filipinos are in demand in service sectors, and are therefore paid accordingly.
Mr Lim said NTUC had organised the press conference to state its position on workers' remuneration and whether foreign workers have enough protection from the law and unions.
The Chinese bus drivers from SMRT went on strike to protest against their wages and living conditions. It sparked outcries from Hong Kong unionists for equal remuneration for them.
Also present on Friday were Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, chairman of the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), Ms Cham Hui Fong, NTUC assistant secretary-general, and National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) executive secretary Ong Chin Ang.
Mr Ong said the NTUW will launch a drive to sign up Chinese SMRT bus drivers as members.
Mr Yeo pledged to engage more foreign workers through the MWC.
In addition, the centre, which was set up by NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation in 2009, will open at a second location in the first half of next year. It has a centre on Rangoon Road where foreign workers in trouble can seek help.
By next year, the MWC will give out calling cards to foreign workers arriving in Singapore to inform them of their rights and how they can seek help.
The MWC has also formed an association for dormitory operators to set standards for members. More than 70 per cent of dormitory operators have joined the association. More details will be provided next week.
Mr Lim urged employers to focus on raising wages by improving skills and productivity of both foreign and local workers.