Did a PAP MP just say that the poor are “slaves”?

TL;DR – A case of the media putting words in someone’s mouth.

I was quite shocked when I read the article in TODAY with this headline: “Some low-wage workers working like ‘slaves’, says labour MP.


Wow. That’s… rather drastic thing to say. I mean… I know some PAP MPs can say things that really make people roll eyes, but to call the poor slaves? That seems kind of… low?

But as I read the article, and then read the actual blogpost that labour MP Zainal wrote, I found out that he didn’t actually say that the poor are slaves, or that they work like slaves.

It looks like TODAY sensationalised what Mr Zainal wrote to have a more attention-grabbing headline.

So what did labour MP Zainal really say?

He said:

“It is a plight that happens when vulnerable, low-wage workers are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, who exploit this group’s ignorance of their employment rights.

Trapped by the need to make a living for themselves and their families, these workers are prone to be shackled in servitude to the masters who control them, all because of the very limited jobs they can undertake given their age and skills.

When the circumstances of being poor force you to “work until you die”, that means you have become beholden to those circumstances – a form of slavery in itself.” (emphasis ours)

Not the first time he’s saying something like this

So he’s saying that the situation that the poor find themselves in is like slavery. Did you know this is not the first time he had said something like this?


In the Budget Debate of 2012, Mr Zainal said something similar. He’d said:

“The practice of cheap sourcing has encouraged service providers to push down their prices so that they could put up low bids that will win the tender. This means that as companies cut corners, the salaries of these low-wage workers, who are essentially the ones who are providing the bulk of the services, are being cut. This gross injustice and slavery of the poor must stop.”

And Mr Zainal wants to end this “slavery of the poor”. It’s one of the things that he’s working very hard on as an MP. He’s spoken up numerous times and written many articles to promote the interests of low wage workers. And he’s not afraid to speak fiercely about this issue.

His efforts, along with those of many others, have yielded some results. We now have the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which has improved the wages and skills of thousands of cleaners, security officers and landscape workers.

From 2012 to 2017, wages of those at the 20th percentile have shown the largest increase.

And he still wants more to be done

However, Mr Zainal isn’t satisfied. He thinks that more can be done, and in particular, more can be done to look into the retirement adequacy of these vulnerable low-wage workers. Mr Zainal mentioned in his blogpost that he has been engaging union leaders to work out possible recommendations.


The vocal labour MP for low-wage workers suggested three specific areas.

First, Mr Zainal suggested that employers maintain the same CPF contribution of low wage workers between the ages of 55 and 65. Currently, employers the employer’s CPF contribution rate decreases progressively after the worker reaches 55 years of age. That’s not to say that low wage workers will have to set aside a bigger chunk of their salaries into CPF when they turn 55. It’s asking employers to not put in less.

Second, Mr Zainal advocated to make the Annual Wage Supplement (AWS, or commonly known as the 13th month bonus) mandatory for low wage workers. Many companies are denying workers their AWS as a means of cutting cost to remain competitive, and this is rampant in companies providing outsourced services such as cleaning, security and landscape.Mr Zainal highlighted that mandating AWS will benefit mostly the low-wage workers. It will boost their salaries by about 8.3 per cent and this can help narrow the income gap.

Lastly, Mr Zainal suggested to provide more help for low wage workers to meet medical costs. Mr Zainal highlighted that anecdotally, many low-wage workers in the outsourced industries only get the very basic statutory benefits under the Employment Act, where employers are only required to for the medical consultation fees when a worker sees a doctor for outpatient treatment. This means that low wage workers end up having to pay for medication, which can be a heavy financial burden on the poor. That’s why Mr Zainal is suggesting that we amend Part IV of the Employment Act to include better medical coverage for workers.

And we want more people like him


The more cynical amongst us might say that Mr Zainal’s blogpost is just wayang, nothing will be done, and low-wage workers will continue to suffer. But do you think he would wayang like this and run the risk of “ruffling some official feathers” if he didn’t have that fire in his belly and that belief?

Say or think what you will, I’m glad that there’s someone like Mr Zainal in Parliament, someone who dares to speak up for the poor.

(Updated 15th Feb, 7:35PM) Mr Zainal posted about the misleading headline on Facebook,

(Featured image via)

Author: CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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