Sunday, March 03, 2013

Will they join?

You could say that I’m living my life backwards. As I approach the big four-zero mark, I seem to be doing all the things that I should have done in my twenties. One of those activities is working at a restaurant. Most of my nights are spent waiting tables in an Italian restaurant near my home. The work isn’t going to win me Nobel Prize anytime soon but it keeps me busy and provides me with some form of exercise. The pay is disproportionately low for the hours worked but it funds my day-to-day living expenses and more importantly it helps fund my CPF (compulsory savings scheme that employed Singaporeans contribute to – a few have bitched about it being a hidden tax but as my Dad pointed out, it’s the only way most of us have the means to buy a home.)

I mention this aspect of my personal life because the experience of working in a job that is officially below my qualifications touches on one of the hot topics in today’s Singapore – jobs or the lack of them. The issue of jobs ties in heavily with everyone’s favourite hot topic – foreigners. As far as most Singaporeans are concerned, the influx of foreigners into the country is the key to all our social problems. One of the key social ills is jobs or the lack of them. If you talk to enough Singaporeans, many of them will complain that there aren’t enough jobs to go around and for those of us with jobs we’ll complain that they are so badly paid, it’s not worth doing them.

The issue is especially sensitive at the bottom of the social ladder. On one hand there is the argument that hiring forigners from the rest of Asia has helped depress wages at the bottom of the ladder thus pricing out the less educated Singaporean from the job market. The businesses have countered that Singaporeans won’t do the jobs so they have to get them from elsewhere.

Singapore’s normally pro-business government has decided to weigh in on the side of labour. In the recent budget announcement, the finance minister made it a point that businesses in certain sectors have become too dependent on “cheap” labour and have therefore ignored upgrading and becoming more productive. To change the situation, the government has increased the foreign worker levy to make foreigners less cheap than the locals and also introduced a slew of measures to encourage employers to become more “productive.” The sectors that have been targeted are retail, construction and F&B (food and beverage) as the sectors that need to up their game and become more productive.

In a way, this budget helps my blue collar persona. Well, the main point is things are going to look much better for that side of me. The employers in the industry are going to have a bigger problem finding people to do the work. The traditional source of labour will dry up and let’s face it, Singaporeans are not about to rush into the industry. Logic would have it that the owners of F&B establishments will have to be nicer to the Singaporeans who are already in the industry.

Let’s face it, the reality of the f&b industry is that it is a people intensive one. There are certain things that can be improved with IT. I think you’d have an instant hit amongst the various small restaurants if you had a bit of technology that would send the information straight to the cashier and the kitchen the moment the waiter takes an order.

Then there’s the issue of dishwashers. The big hotels wash their dishes by machine. The smaller outlets don’t. They have someone to do it. One of the key arguments is that they don’t have the space and human labour makes up for things.

Leaving aside these two areas, there’s arguably little that you can reduce. Perhaps some outlets can become ‘self-service’ restaurants. However, if you are planning on running a reasonably mid-priced restaurant, you still need the people to cook and serve the food.

So like it or not, the restaurant business needs people to keep things moving along. Unfortunately getting labour is going to be as tough as it has always been.

Let’s start with the obvious. Being in the service line is tough. It can be downright unpleasant especially if you have a ‘I won’t take shit’ mentality. I’ve had customers come up to me and challenge me to a fight. Apparently I didn’t see him wave at me and so after he got someone to take his order, he came up to me and asked, “Do you have a problem with me?” This is the type of thing that usually leads to someone having their face smacked in. However, I didn’t smack his face in – I had to get him to sit down and have his meal.
The job requires you to have a high level of tolerance for nonsense. You have to stay pleasant when the situation is such that you don’t particularly feel like being nice.

In a funny way, my years in PR have helped me to cope with the demands of the job. I’m older or at least I’ve reached the age where I’m more inclined to let certain things pass. I’m also at the stage where I’d rather laugh at things rather than getting angry or sad. Hence, I laugh at situations and for the most part, I end up laughing with customers and have a decent rapport with most of them.

I’m lucky. If you look at the demands of the job, you’ll see that one requires a decent amount of EQ rather than IQ to do the job. Unfortunately this is not the way the education system in Singapore has geared people up for. A good portion of the middle class, for example, have been raised by maids. How do you encourage people who have been brought up believing that it’s their birthright to be served to actually serve?

By contrast the Filipinos are used to providing service. A part of it is economics. Another part of it is probably cultural, where they’ve been more inclined to let things go.

This then brings in the question of pay or the lack of it. The F&B industry has always been known for being a tough paymaster. With the exception of executive chefs or restaurant owners, most people in the industry don’t earn pots of money. I have a friend who has worked in the industry for 25-year. He’s currently on a salary of $1,900 and considers it high. I know of a former restaurant manager who rose from $2,000 a month to $6,000 in 25-years. By comparison, I got $1,800 a month when I started out in my first agency job.

Long hours for relatively little money isn’t exactly the most attractive thing to bandy about when you are trying to get people to join the industry.

So what can be done? There are people who would rather be jobless than work in the industry. Pay could increase but then again, the question of how much pay do wages need to go up before people consider it attractive for the hours worked? That will be question for the industry to answer in the coming years.  

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