The Right to a Dignified Life!

The following is my script of the multi-disciplinary talk delivered at the National Library which was an event organised by Maruah to commemorate the United Nation's 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 23:3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that; Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

Are the socio-economic rights of every individual respected and upheld by the government of Singapore? Because this question is essentially one of justice and ethics, it is important to make a few, basic moral assertions:

* First of all, human beings have dignity, weight, and worth. All human beings, regardless of gender, race, creed, or ability, are deserving of respect and justice.

* Secondly, human beings have the ability to be creative. Our needs are met and our humanity is realized when we can apply our intellect and creativity to the nature of things.

The Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II once said, "Work is a good thing for man - a good thing for his humanity - because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes more a human being."

Every men and women on earth should realize the importance of work. But what good is work, when wages for the work are insufficient to pay for rent, food, utilities, taxes, health care, transportation, and childcare? And, how do we view those earning low-income and suffering the consequences poverty? Do we see them as rights-holders or as objects of charity? We need to accept the fact that individuals have legitimate claims to rights and a dignified life. And that it is the ability to earn sufficient wages, which gives an individual this capacity to live a dignified life. There is a real need today in Singapore, to seek justice in wages!

The Singapore government’s various policies have disadvantaged a certain segment of the population, which causes them to earn minimal wages that is further suppressed by cheap foreign labour. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the same government, to prop up the earning capacity of this segment of the population, through living wages.

What is a living wage? A living wage is an income which will provide this disadvantaged segment of the population with minimally satisfactory living conditions, to the context of Singapore. It is different from minimum wages, as those drawing minimum wages, could still live in poverty. Living wages, will give the disadvantaged a right to life, liberties and opportunities.

I was at the Budget 2009 Feedback session recently, which was chaired by Dr. Amy Khor and Mr Ng Wai Choong Deputy Secretary (Policy), Ministry of Finance, and there were some people from the business community who were there to advocate that the government should make it easer for ‘talented’ foreigners to come to Singapore to work as they demand a lower salary. One businessman actually said that he needs to pay a top rate chef from China only $1200 per month but no Singaporean top rate chef would work for that salary. Another business person said that China workers are willing to work for $2 per hour.

This argument to bring in more ‘talented’ foreign labourers is flawed. Singapore only has a resident population of about 3.5 million people. China and India combined has a population of about 2 billion. There surely must be 1% of the population of these countries, or 20 million people who are more ‘talented’ and ’skilled’ and more ‘educated’ than Singaporeans. If Singapore starts accepting ‘foreign talent’ based on the ‘fact’ that they are more ’skillful’ and more ‘educated’, the entire resident population has got to be displaced and Singapore has got to find ways of expanding geographically. What then will happen to the Singaporeans? And of course some foreigners would be able to work for $2 an hour as they may not have the overheads of the resident population like paying for accommodation, needs of the family, transportation, etc.

In this present era where businesses often try to shirk their corporate citizen responsibilities, a supplement to the suppressed income of those that earn low wages is essential. This is the reality. But is this reality being ‘masked’ by those that are in power? The government pays lip service to this reality. In the year 2007, the government spent 460 million dollars in workfare bonuses and rebates for living expenses, for those who earn $1500 or less. This is just an average spending of $105 per month per person, for the 362000 low-income workers.

The Straits Times reported on 29 December 2007, about Yeo Jee See then aged 52, who earns $1,000 a month and lives in a three-room HDB flat in Whampoa. She is a sole breadwinner, who is already dipping into her savings to look after her 79-year-old mother, who is recovering from breast cancer, and a 13-year-old son. The spending of the average of $105 per month, not even in disposable income, but through medisave top-ups, and rebates, is an insult to hardworking people like her.

I believe every eligible citizen should be entitled to a living wage. What is a living wage and how much should it be? My thoughts are that it should be capped to price of renting a room from the open market. Cost of average rental room in the open market-divide by 30-times 100. Why? Because, nobody should spend more than 30% of their income on accommodation, as then they become cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.

And it should be the responsibility of the businesses to pay this living wage to the workers. And if the government would not direct businesses to pay living wages arguing that competitive wages and a flexible labour market are necessary for business to remain competitive and to stay in Singapore, then it becomes the responsibility of the government to prop up these artificially suppressed wages.

By paying people a `living wage,' we show respect for them and what they do and we enable them to give something back. The have the income to spend more, local businesses, professionals, school districts and, even religious organisations, benefit. We also benefit as a community because people who are able to meet their basic needs by working a 40-hour week have time and energy for their family, their faith community, and civic life.