Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Dignity of Unemployment

One of the most prominent moments in my short career as a waiter was when a customer (who was trying flirt) asked me if I was from the “Yellow Ribbon” program (Yellow Ribbon being the organization that deals with reformed criminals). She said that something was out of place – someone who speaks like me shouldn’t be working in as a waiter. This wasn’t the only occasion when that point was made.

I remember this incident because it lies at the heart of a common dilemma faced by Singaporeans – the seemingly unavailable number of well-paying jobs available for graduates today. It seems that graduates are not finding jobs and those who do find jobs that are way beneath their pay scale. I am, as they say, not the only graduate who’s had to do a job beneath his or her qualifications.

To a certain extent, waiting tables is a dead end job. The hours are long. In theory you should start work half an hour before opening and you should leave half an hour after the last order. In practice, things can drag on. In truth, you only really leave after the last customer leaves. This can go long after midnight.

Pay isn’t very good either. One of my favourite ex-colleagues loves to send me job offers in other restaurants. Tells me in an excited manner that I can earn about S$2,000 a month (this is what I started out with in my first agency job). McDonald’s used to pay workers the princely sum of $4 an hour – though I’m told they’ve raised it to S$8 an hour. At that rate, you will need to work 125 hours a month to make S$1,000. Not exactly, a living wage in what has been dubbed the world’s most expensive city in the world for expatriates.

These factors on their own don’t make this an attractive job. In the West, this is a job for students or aspiring artiste waiting for their big break. In Singapore this has become the job for migrants looking to build up some savings for the folks back home.

The refrain for many Singaporeans is that these are wages that are way too low for Singaporeans to do but somehow acceptable for foreigners from developing Asia.  How do you support a family on less than S$1,500 so the argument goes? As such, Singaporeans with more than two functioning brain cells shun jobs in the service sector.

I find this logic rather strange. How is the same dollar low for a Singaporean but a fortune for someone else when both are living in same city. Then there’s the inevitable fact that many of the people who tell me that 
I’ve lowered myself by working in a “low paying” job are the very people who need me to top up their bus card.

Sure, I am officially a “pleb.” I am earning less than I did when I first started out in the PR and advertising world. As I approach my 40th birthday, I am slowly but surely becoming a statistic that the government worries about.

However, instead of feeling resentment, I’ve found that it’s better to make the most of the situation. I make more from a single free-lance job than I do in a single month of waiting tables. However, this job is steady and what I make from the job ties me over when the PR work is nonexistent.  More importantly, I’m able to use my freelance earnings to build up savings and the job has also helped me to start up building my nonexistent CPF funds (the Provident Fund is Singapore’s main pension system).

I have very low pay, yet I’ve manage to survive. I’ve found that having a badly paid job makes you a little more interesting to people.

There are, however, people who disagree with my experiences. They, as I’ve said earlier, the people who need me and my low wages to top up their bus cards. Apparently this group have reached a stage in life where they know it all and the concept of labour is insulting to them.

They argue that there is no way one can survive on low pay. Doing things like washing dishes, sweeping the streets and dare I say, waiting tables. Apparently, being seen to do these jobs is somehow shameful and one should not do or be seen to do these things.

However, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to their social standing to do things like search through ashtrays for unsmoked cigarettes so that they can have a smoke and bumming drinks of people like foreign workers. Apparently there is a lot of pride in having holes in your shoes but owning a $100,000 hi-fi set.
I don’t know, but having shit and lousy pay beats having no pay at all. Life in the F&B industry has made me more sympathetic to our foreign arrivals from developing Asia. These are the guys who come here and take shit. Somehow, they make their lives better.

By contrast, you have the crowd that thinks there is shame in dirty labour. Somehow, it’s always someone elses fault that they’re not getting the jobs they think they are entitled to and while we are continuing this discussion – could you please buy them a meal. 

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