Cindy Ng is Head, MWS Family Service Centre – Tampines & Yishun at Methodist Welfare Services, and a social worker with extensive experience working with low-income families and persons experiencing violence and abuse.

Thoughtful employment practices can boost the social mobility of low-wage workers, says MWS’ Cindy Ng.

Shan Shan* approached one of our family service centres a number of years ago seeking financial help for her children. Her husband’s mental health condition had deteriorated and he was no longer able to remain employed. As a result, she became the sole breadwinner for her household of five. Shan Shan had been working in a hospital as a cleaner for a few months when she approached us for assistance.

She shared that because she spoke little English, she was afraid that she would not be able to interact with her colleagues in the hospital, especially her supervisors, the nurses and the other professionals.

A Caring Supervisor

A few months into her new job at the hospital, however, Shan Shan’s supervisor, Raja*, began to take notice of her performance. He saw that she was able to complete her duties promptly and had an excellent work attitude. Raja took it upon himself to plan and consider ways to help Shan Shan progress in her career. Raja had only a primary school education and had always struggled to find better paying jobs in the service industry.

When he first started working at the hospital, his supervisor identified his strengths and helped him find progress in his career. Because of his experience, Raja believed extending that same helping hand should be something natural he also does for Shan Shan. Furthermore, the hospital had an internal skills upgrading programme in place, and Raja made a recommendation for Shan Shan to be placed on the programme.


In the following two to three years, Shan Shan went through on-the-job training, external training courses and coaching to help her learn the ropes of a healthcare assistant. Shan Shan struggled with juggling going for training courses and caring for her husband and young children at the same time. However, because of the support she received in her workplace from her colleagues, as her social worker, I was able to focus on helping Shan Shan procure community resources to manage her caregiving responsibilities.

I also spent time helping Shan Shan find new ways to manage her caregiving and work stress, and provided counselling to tide her through difficult periods at work and at home. Shan Shan eventually successfully completed her training and became a healthcare assistant. In addition to earning a better income, Shan Shan’s mood improved tremendously and she was generally happier and more confident.

Not so Fortunate

On the other hand, Daniel*, another client at our family service centre, wasn’t so fortunate. Daniel works long hours as a security guard. The hours are demanding and the work is exhausting. Because of manpower constraints, Daniel often skips meals or takes only quick lunches during his shift work. Even if he manages a lunch break, he does not have a place to rest. What bothers Daniel most is the low income he draws. It does not allow him to provide sufficiently for his family of four.

Daniel spoke often about how he found it difficult to secure a higher paying job because of his low educational qualifications. I asked Daniel from time to time if he had considered going for courses conducted by the various adult training centres in Singapore to equip himself with supervisory skills. This way, he could at some point be promoted to a security supervisor, earning himself a better salary.

I also asked Daniel if his supervisor had encouraged him to go for courses and spoken to him on how he can progress in his career. But Daniel often looked uncomfortable when I raised these issues. The company he works for is a small one, he reminded me.

He and his colleagues are always putting in overtime hours to cope with the number of projects the company has acquired. No one has time to think about going for courses, he said.

In addition, Daniel shared he found it hard to sit in class for long hours and stressful to take the compulsory assessments at the end of the courses.

“I never did well in school”, he lamented. In as much as the journey to upgrading may appear straightforward to many of us, to people like Daniel, it is an emotional, fearful and anxiety-provoking experience.

More Money in Theory, but Practical Support Needed

With the implementation of the Ministry of Manpower’s Progressive Wage Model for the security sector in 2016, both Shan Shan and Daniel now receive more income every month. However, I noticed Shan Shan looked happier and sounded more confident about her work and financial situation compared to Daniel. She attributed this to the support she received from her supervisor and her workplace.

Shan Shan’s workplace had what human resource experts call a “growth culture” – a culture that values learning as a priority for everyone and all team members feel a sense of purpose in the work they do. Employees believe they are contributing in meaningful ways to the whole organisation.

While there are many skills upgrading programmes available, employees thrive in workplaces that have their interest at heart. They do better in workplaces that create and implement learning and development structures that would help them achieve their aspirations.

News of new guidelines for companies to provide proper rest areas are also a right step in the direction to improve the work environment of low-wage workers in Singapore. While these are good practices for all employers, the positive impact go beyond higher productivity and employee satisfaction. It provides upward mobility for low-wage workers.

Employers make the Difference

Shan Shan and Daniel’s experiences at their workplaces highlight how employers play a big part in helping to boost progress and social mobility in our society. Low-wage workers face bigger challenges in keeping up with the fast pace of change at work. When employers adopt people-centric employment practices, and consider the well-being and potential of their low wage workers, they get a better shot at life.

Daniel’s progress and experience could have been so much different if only his workplace recognises and supports the development of his abilities the way Shan Shan’s employer does. Even small actions by employers can have an immense impact when it concerns the lives of low-wage workers.

They have a big stake in the development of an enabling environment where every one of us feels supported and encouraged to do our best to realise our potential and contribute back to the workplace.

*Not their real names

This article was originally published on Channel NewsAsia on 15 December 2019.

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