Don't leave it up to your employer to protect you from exploitation.
Don’t leave it up to your employer to protect you from exploitation.

In this year’s May Day Rally, NTUC Chief Lim Swee Say said that employers “need to make better use of every worker, and treat every worker better”. He also told employees to not take the tight labour market for granted. May Day (a.k.a. International Workers’ Day) began as a movement of employees seeking better working conditions, hours, and protection from their employers. This was at a time when many employers exploited their employees, often forcing them to work very long hours (12+) in dangerous working conditions.

Unfortunately, much of this still goes on in the developing nations. Last week was the one year anniversary of the Bangladesh garment factory collapse, in which more than 1000 people died. Some would even say that there are remnants of this kind of exploitation in many developed nations… Although there have been many labour laws passed since the first May Day, we as employees still need to do our part to protect ourselves and not assume that our employer always has our best interest in mind.


5 ways of protecting yourself:

1. Know your employment rights and your contract. If you are protected under the Employment Act, it is important for you to know your rights. You’ll need to know how to deal with late or non-payment, wrongful termination, discrimination and other issues. Note that if you are a professional, manager or executive earning more than S$4500 per month (“PMEs”), you are not protected under the Employment Act. Your employment disputes are usually governed by the common law of contract instead.

2. Continuously update your skills, widen your network and keep an eye out for new opportunities. Gone are the days when a person stays with the same company for life. Times are changing. And in Singapore, they are changing quite rapidly. With more automation and outsourcing, the job market might be growing in some sectors and shrinking in others.

It is essential, therefore, for employees to stay relevant and continuously adapt to new information and processes. Thankfully, there are tons of free educational and skills training courses available online. My favourite sites include Coursera and Udacity.

May Day employee protection

And if there’s a service that you can provide through the internet (data entry, writing, copy-editing, graphic design, photo-editing, web development, programming, coaching, tutoring, etc.), now might be a good idea to build your freelancing portfolio. The Guardian reports that by the year 2020, 40% of the workforce will be freelancers.

No matter what your employment status is, it’s always good to continue to network, as this is now the main way employers find employees. Events through Meetup and PMET Network can be a good place to start. Joining a service club, such as Kiwanis, Rotary, and Toastmasters, can also be a great way to grow your network.


3. Have an emergency fund. Financial planners will tell you that you should have an emergency fund of at least 3 to 6 months. But I usually aim for 6 months to 1 year. Why? Because medical emergencies can be quite costly (even if you have insurance). And whenever there is a significant medical emergency, chances are you may lose your job or may not be able to work for a period of time. I’ve seen so many instances of people living paycheck to paycheck. They live so “close to the edge” that one unexpected incident is all it takes to push them toward complete insolvency.


4. Be frugal and avoid the consumption treadmill. Being frugal not only will help to obtain an emergency fund, but will also help to avoid the “earn-and-consume” treadmill. Nigel Marsh sums it up nicely when he said in a TED talk, “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.” Working for the sake of supporting a spendthrift lifestyle is a feedback loop that is not only unhealthy but will lead to greater unhappiness and disillusionment later on in life. A frugal lifestyle protects you as an employee by helping to achieve not just future financial freedom, but freedom from materialism and the enslaving rat race.


5. Be aware that your employer, even if you are in good relations, is incentivised to squeeze as much out of you due to the capitalistic nature of businesses. In order to compete in a global marketplace, companies are always trying to maximise profits and minimise expenses. You (the employee) belong to both categories. Your work, skills and expertise are used by the company to generate profit. But your salary is an expense. So this incentivises organisations, even non-profit organisations, to ask more of you. And anything extra you are willing to give – your skills, talent, or time – they will eagerly take. You, therefore, must guard and protect yourself and your time. If you feel they are asking for too much and giving you too little in return, perhaps it’s time to reestablish balance again. 

Yes, I know I’m over-emphasising this point. But I feel that the Singaporean culture tends to emphasize the other extreme. That other extreme says to always be grateful and appreciative of one’s job; to constantly strive to do a better job and to increase productivity; and to remember that the rest of the world wishes they had a job like yours. Though these points are also quite valid, I feel that most people already have them ingrained.

But the former point (that you must protect yourself) tends to be less evident. As employees, we need to be mindful of this, and not just believe that our employers have our best interest in mind.

I’ll be writing more on this topic in the next article. In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy May Day.

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