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” while telling employees not to take the tight labour market (i.e., more jobs than workers) 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 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, for the purpose of protecting the rights of employees, we still need to do our part to protect ourselves and not assume that our employer has our best interest in mind. Here are 4 ways of protecting yourself:

1. Continuously update your skills, widen your network and keep an open mind for new opportunities. Gone are the days when a person works at the same company throughout his/her entire working years. Times are changing, and in Singapore, they are changing quite rapidly. With increased automation and outsourcing, the job market may be increasing for some sectors and desired skill sets, and decreasing for others. It is essential, May Day employee protectiontherefore, 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 on the internet. My favourite sites include Coursera and Udacity, the latter being more tech-oriented. If there is a service that you can provide through the internet (data entry, writing, copy-editing, graphic design, photo-editing, web development, programming, coaching, tutoring, etc.), it might be a good idea to build your freelance portfolio since 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 good way to network.

2. Have an emergency fund. Financial planners will tell you that you should have an emergency fund of at least 3 to 6 months. I usually tell people to have a bit more than 6 months because medical emergencies can be quite costly (even if you are insured), and whenever there is a long-term significant medical emergency, chances are you may lose your job or may not be able to work. I’ve seen way too many instances where people not only live paycheck to paycheck, but also live so “on the edge” and engage in risky behaviour, that all it takes is one incident that pushes them toward insolvency.

3. 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 consumption treadmill (a.k.a. the rat race). 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 the enslavement of materialism and the rat race.

4. Be aware that your employer, even if you are in good relations with him/her, is always incentivized toward squeezing every last drop out of you due to the capitalistic nature of businesses. In order to compete in a global marketplace, companies will try to get your skills and expertise at a lower price or with a more skilled/younger worker. Organizations, even non-profit organizations, have the tendency to take everything you are willing to give them – your work, your time, your soul, your firstborn (or rather, the delaying of your firstborn, as many organizations entice you to delay having kids for the sake of advancing your career and their bottom line). You, therefore, must guard and protect yourself and your time, and always know that whatever you are willing to give, your employer is likely eager to take. I’m overemphasizing this point simply because it seems that most Singaporeans emphasize the other extreme, that is, to be grateful and appreciative of one’s job, to constantly strive to do a better job and increase productivity, and to remember that much of the rest of the world wishes they had a job like the one you have. Though this is just as important, most people I meet don’t have trouble remember the latter, but the former seems to be an entirely new concept to them. 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 in the next post. In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy May Day.

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