A one-of-a-kind union that rejects minimum wage

Zorro Lim

Inspiring great confidence in the union

Every good party needs a clown to provide the laughs, and it was Zorro Lim (not his real name) on the PAP roster yesterday.

At the Budget debate, NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say rejected renewed calls by several MPs, including Inderjit Singh and NMP Lawrence Lien, for a minimum wage system. Instead of speaking up for the workers that he is supposed to represent, he is strangely the one voicing the objection, even if we know all along that the government is never keen on the idea.

This must be an absolute one of a kind. Nowhere in the world will you ever find another union chief who argues against higher wages for workers.

As mentioned in the above linked report, more than 90 per cent of countries have some sort of minimum wage. But Zorro thinks we have a system better than all these countries. Instead of a straightforward policy, he prefers convoluted wage supplement systems that go by indistinguishable acronyms like WIS, WTS, WTF, etc.

“With the WIS, WTS and Progressive Wage Model, we believe we now have a minimum wage model. In fact, it’s more than a minimum wage model whereby we can maximise the upside of low-wage workers and at the same time minimise the downside,” was what he said.

If you can’t convince them, confuse them — as what Zorro did here with this laughable smoke bomb he has thrown. He must have left the MPs still scratching their heads at the end of the session as nobody could possibly grasp what he’s on about.

A list of countries with minimum wage on Wikipedia shows that even in countries that don’t have a national minimum wage, there are minimum levels set by collective bargaining agreements. The NTUC, on the other hand, is as reluctant as the stingiest employers when it comes to recommending wage increments. Zorro will be proud that he is in the company of a very select group of countries consisting of the likes of Somalia, Tonga and Yemen.

Without a doubt, there are pros and cons to having a minimum wage, and it is an endless debate that even economists can’t agree on. But when the majority of countries, especially all the first world countries, have such a policy, one would think that there must be more right than wrong with it.

The bigger problem in Singapore, however, is not this debate on the merits of a minimum wage itself. The problem is the role of the union and these so-called Labour MPs, as how the mainstream papers describe the likes of Zorro and MP Zainal Sapari who are involved in the union. It is a term that gives them way too much credit.

Over the past two weeks, netizens have lambasted leaders of business and restaurant groups for their lobbying against the tightening of foreign worker supply. Even if we criticise them for engaging in their usual scare tactics, we must realise that they are doing this to protect the interest of their members.

Similarly, it is normal for MPs and NMPs to speak up for the different groups they represent, whether in an official or unofficial capacity. For example, MP Halimah Yacob touched on Malay issues before she became Speaker of Parliament, while NMP Janice Koh speaks for the arts scene. Yesterday, NMP Tan Su Shan warned against excessive curbing of talent flow, which is not surprising given her private sector role as a DBS Group Head. Everyone plays his part to ensure balanced representation in parliament.

Everyone except our union chief.

And that is why we have problems of suppressed wage levels and an increasing income gap. On one side, we have business groups and pro-business MPs lobbying for the SMEs, but on the other side, there is no one to fight for the workers. It is as lopsided as it gets.

Of course, we know the government wants the union in check, and Zorro is there to do just that. But is it too much to ask that he speaks up for workers once in a while? Can he at least pretend he has their interest at heart?