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Bertha HarianBertha Harian


Who guards the security guard?

So it seems that we have 33,000 security guards, but we need another 10,000. What’s odd is that there are 70,000 people here who are already trained to be security guards. Just that no one wants in because of low pay and long hours. You would have thought that one way is to raise pay and get more people into the business. But the solution, for a very long time, seems to be: give them low basic pay so that they will work extra hours or overtime to cover for that lack of manpower! Sounds so counter-intuitive. In fact, some security firms actually ask to be exempt from the law which limits overtime work to 72 hours a month. It’s more usual for them to work 95 hours of OT each month. No wonder you get rather bleary-eyed security guards. Cleaners get low pay too, but I haven’t heard complaints about long hours.

The G and the labour movement wants to subject the security industry to the same regime as the cleaners, that is, a minimum starting pay scale which will go up progressively as the guard acquires more skills. There are five rungs in all. Seems to me it’s rather more important to fix working hours. Or maybe their connected.  They usually work 12 hour days, six days a week to take home about $2,000 or so a month. If they didn’t do overtime (which is about 1.5 times the hourly rate) you wonder how they keep body and soul together because basic pay is about $800 a month. I can’t imagine a sole breadwinner or a family man taking on the job willingly, especially if there are no career prospects.

I guess if basic pay moves up, and overtime pay goes up in tandem, there won’t be so much need to log/slog long hours. Also, more people – Singaporeans and PRs –  might be wooed back into the industry and we will finally have enough people helming regular working hours. (Yup, this is one industry that is closed to foreigners.) Is this too optimistic a scenario? And how long will it take? Will it still be shunned by locals, like cleaning jobs and dishwashing? After all, there will still be shift and weekend work…

So what happens in Sept 2016 when the new rules kick in? And why wait so long anyway? It seems that some contracts are already in play which would be hard to unwind, but more importantly, it’s to give the guards time to bone up and get the requisite qualifications to make it on the higher rungs. It does seem that the $1,100 a month basic pay might be rather too low in two years’ time given that we’ve been told that inflation is going up. But I gather that this is not a cast in stone minimum figure, it’ll go up along with whatever the National Wages Council recommends every year.

Actually, the G and the NTUC has an easier time of it because the firms are already subject to annual licences administered by the police and Manpower ministry; licensing is a new thing for the cleaning industry. Yet you sort of wonder how security firms even managed to get their licences renewed in the past. There’s an A to D grading system that looks at security operations and working conditions and a firm has to hit D twice to have their licence put in the freezer. Now, there will be a new set of rules attached that will make sure employers stick to what is known as the Progressive Wage Model.

Again, I can’t help but think about how mean we have been to our cleaners and security guards. Yes. Us. We won’t pay more for them to guard our malls, carparks and condos. So the building committees put out a tender and the firms start under-cutting each other to land the job. And since manpower is the biggest cost, the salaries never go up and working hours just get longer. You keep wondering why the firms don’t just get together and fix prices, except that this would be anti-competitive. The market works for the end-user but penalises the worker.

I have been reading the fine print and wondering if people will be willing to pay more for a security guard. I mean, we all like to wring our hands; pulling out our wallets is quite a different thing altogether. Seems end-users do get some kind of help to pay for the higher wages – up to 50 per cent of the increase. So it’s not a big jump. And the firms can also dip into a fund that will pay for technology to help them in their work. This will benefit the forward looking firms who don’t mind juggling rosters and re-designing the job – why have four security guards when you can have one guy in front of a screen monitoring entrances and exits and one or two others on patrol?

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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