Work hard; Be happy

In News Reports on July 19, 2014 at 5:52 am

There’s an interesting report today in ST about a 1,000-worker and 500-boss survey on work-life balance. It threw up some odd results, like how most thought they were “in control’’ of their work-life arrangements although very few took up flexi-work options. Extrapolate further on why they thought they were in control and what comes across is that they can take “emergency leave’’ and “time off’’ at short notice.

Seems we have a very low threshold of pain… I liked what Guardian Health and Beauty chief executive Sarah Boyd said about the survey: “I think for me, the ability to take time off at short notice or emergency leave shouldn’t be considered a part of the frame of reference for work-life balance – it should be a basic human need… If Singaporeans were able to see what work-life balance and flexi-work means in other parts of the world, they would get a very different frame of reference for their decisions.”

I wish this part of the report was expanded further. What DO work-life balance and flexi-work mean elsewhere?

Clearly, Singapore is way behind developed countries in flexi-work arrangements and their take-up rates. Employer Alliance chief Claire Chiang thinks it’s because they had to tackle the problem far earlier – more usual for both men and women to work (gender equality) and families did without maids.

But when it comes to employers staggering working hours or having telecommuting arrangements, the numbers here aren’t that bad. Close to half of employers say they have such arrangements. But workers don’t seem to be taking them up. Some analysts put this down to an addiction to work, and how so much of life now centres on work.
Strikes me that maybe, workers may not know they are available. Or maybe, these are not “structured’’ arrangements offered by the company but ad hoc ones given to those who ask.

Or maybe, as Ms Boyd, said the Singapore workers’ “frame of reference’’ is quite different from elsewhere. (Because there is a maid and family support at home?) So even if we do work long hours, we still find satisfaction in work, as a survey on teachers earlier showed. Our idea of balance is to be able to get time out when there are emergencies, for which we seem to be thankful that bosses understand this “basic human need’’.

Worker: Boss, my 80-year old mother had an accident and is now in hospital ICU. Can I leave now to go see her?
Possible responses:
Boss: No, finish your work first. Your mother will still be in hospital when your work is done.
Boss: And who is going to do your work while you’re away? Me?
Boss: You have no brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, people related to you by blood or marriage who can be with her now?
Boss: Go! Go! This is all part of work-life balance that the company and the country is promoting. Go with my blessings. (Worker keels over in gratitude at the magnanimous gesture.)

Anyway, some interesting findings beyond the top line results:
a. Working mothers with young children is the group most worried about being looked askance if they took up flexi-work arrangements. The survey doesn’t say why but it’s probably because this is the group which most probably HAS to ask for leave and such when boy-boy or girl-girl get sick or get into trouble.

b. It’s the men who want more work-life balance than the women, saying that their well-being, personal and family life as well as work productivity will be enhanced.

c. While most people say they would be attracted to work in a company which promotes balance, not as many say they will quit if it doesn’t. Guess they are stuck or maybe the pay is good…

d. The 20-somethings form the group most in favour of work-life balance, saying that their family/personal life would “improve significantly’’. Gosh! So young and already want “balance’’, more so than the older cohorts who probably have children and elderly parents to look after…wish they would just work first before insisting on “balance”.

e. Bosses interviewed aren’t tough about demanding face-time with workers or that they work long hours or that they take work home. Seems it’s all in workers’ imaginations. But, here’s the rub: Some 54 per cent of bosses say they should be available to “meet business needs regardless of business hours ‘’ but only 37 per cent of workers agree. So it seems that workers want “real’’ time-out, and not be at the bosses’ beck and call.

g. At the end of the day, it’s the workers’ direct supervisor who is the face of a company in support of work-life balance. About 61 per cent of respondents said their supervisor was “more’’ and “much more’’ supportive compared to the company.
I think (g) is the most important point. A company can put out all the arrangements it wants but it is usually the direct line supervisors who decide access – as well as performance appraisal (!)

Earlier this month, 69 companies and individuals received the “Best Companies for Mums” Awards organised by the National Trades Union Congress Women’s Development Secretariat and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP). It also awards “most supportive supervisors’’. This year, it remembered Dads and added: “Most Enabling Companies for Dads”.

I got hold of a citation for one of the “most supportive supervisors’’ award – for Chan Hoi San of StarHub.

Here is an edited excerpt of the nomination by Eloise Yeo:

“I am a mother of three, and have to rely on family support to take care of my children. Despite the long distance to and from work, Hoi San supports me in times when I have to leave work half an hour earlier so that I can take over the childcare from my mother. The challenges that I have to overcome at home grew when my Dad was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011. He eventually passed away within a month of diagnosis. During that one month, Hoi San allowed me to work from home so that I can take care of my girls while my Mom takes care of my Dad. ..Things weren’t over as after this, my father in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and had to go through rounds of treatment. Hoi San showed her care and concern as a confidant and gave me advice as a friend. When I had to drive to and from work so that I can fetch my girls, she even helped me to seek approval for limited carpark lots in the office so that I do not have to pay a huge amount of carpark fees every day. At this juncture, I am faced with the illness of my mother and the birth of my third child. I am truly at the most difficult moment of my personal and work life. Hoi San once again supported me in my half day work arrangement to manage the home front and work demands. Through my trials and challenges faced at home and my family, Hoi San has never doubted me. She gave me her full trust and support time and again. I really wouldn’t be able to continue my work and manage my family if not for her constant support, reassurance and advice.”

At the end of the day, it’s really the people you work with that counts.

In another person’s shoes…

In News Reports, Society on July 14, 2014 at 2:35 am

I am a frequent visitor to Katong Shopping Centre because I am in the hunt for yet another maid. The first one didn’t last long…Then I read in an ST commentary today that only 42 per cent of maids placed by agents last more than a year with their employers. Those are Manpower ministry statistics from Feb 2011 to Feb last year. And I don’t feel that bad – except I wonder if “good job-matching’’ is one of the criteria for maid agencies which acquire the CaseTrust mark.

The media has been full of stuff about maid agents of the unscrupulous kind, as well as employers of the horrible kind. NGOs are weighing in on the way prospective maids are “put on display’’ in a demeaning way and the slave labour rates that they get – no money for several months because of loan payments that the employer had paid the bill for.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the plight of those who have to leave the country in search of better pay. I cringe when I see maids lined up behind glass walls and supposedly doing chores like ironing and coo-ing baby to sleep (they carry a doll).
What if I were put in their shoes? I think I would be rather too proud to do the same, unless I am in desperate straits – which I guess most of them must be.

Then I also hear some horror stories about maids and am reminded that I must install a CCTV in my mother’s home to monitor the maid’s movements. I was told of a maid who was caught “napping’’ everyday, lazing around the house before hurrying to do the housework before Sir and Mom get home. Not so bad, I thought. Then I hear about how she was caught thrashing the pet dog with a chair. And more mysteriously, how she took a loaf of bread from the kitchen and then put it back in its place untouched after several hours. Hauled by the employer to the maid agent, she steadfastly refused to say what she was doing with the loaf of bread in the meantime. Needless to say, she was “returned’’ to the maid agent to be unleashed, I suppose, as a transfer maid on another unsuspecting employer.

That loaf of bread bugged me and I am now wondering if I should extend surveillance coverage to bedrooms and bathrooms as well. I know I shouldn’t. Everyone deserves privacy. I put myself in their shoes. I wouldn’t want to live under 24-hour surveillance.

I read also today about how employers are keeping tabs on their workers especially those who have to go out in the field to do interviews or surveys. ST quoted employees who, OF COURSE, said they didn’t mind such surveillance. Bosses, OF COURSE, insist they are not spying but just want to improve efficiency. I guess it’s no different from spot checks being done, except in a more efficient way using technology. It crossed my mind that the G should invest in them because I recall how the Auditor-General had noted that most of its parking enforcement officers are never where they are supposed to be on their rounds. Good for motorists but you wonder about what they are up to on the taxpayers’ dime. Catching a movie?

Then I put myself in their shoes. Would I like to have my employer checking up on me all the time? Even remotely? Good for company productivity but what about my privacy? Does a worker’s life belong to the employer during working hours?

Lines are getting blurred because the nature of the jobs we do are changing. We’re no longer tied to a bench in an assembly line where a few minutes of stray thinking might lead to a finger getting sliced off. So many of us are “up and about’’ during company time, for work, sales and outside meetings. Some of our work requires creativity or “down time’’. It’s not manual labour or quantifiable. I guess companies have other ways of monitoring laggards, like setting targets for sales. So, don’t care what you do, so long as you meet targets – and commissions for whatever you sell beyond. Of course, for bosses, it would be more efficient to set targets extremely high and for workers, not to spoil market for the rest by meeting targets too easily.

But when we keep applauding the use of technology in monitoring workers, I wonder if we’re missing another point – the extent of control companies can have over their workers. Can a company really install hidden cameras anywhere it wants, even the bathrooms to monitor pee-breaks? I suppose so since it is on its premises. What about tapping phones or monitoring email? Okay too because company property is being used? What if it made every worker out on the field carry an electronic monitoring device? Is that okay too? Sure, since GPS devices can be used in company transport to monitor deliveries and such.

I suppose such restrictions represent a contract or compact between employers and workers. I pay you, you do as I say. Except that most workers are probably not aware of any monitoring going on if technology is used. We’re probably not going to make a big fuss about it even if we do. Most of us are not “western’’ enough to insist on our right to privacy. Hey, we even welcome the instalment of CCTV cameras everywhere as a crime deterant. Privacy issues come second. And if anyone doesn’t like the surveillance, they can always walk out and walk into another company.

I am actually wondering if there are any lines drawn at all between the employer and the employed with regards to “proper’’ working conditions. You might say that this is a “rich’’ country question when there are other more pressing issues such as housing and paying foreign workers appropriately. You might also say that common sense will prevail – CCTV to monitor bathroom breaks? Is this something that a worker can complain about to MOM or any labour union representative?

Maybe, I am over-thinking the issue. I am only raising this because I am wondering about extending CCTV coverage to monitor a maid’s movements. Like any employer, I can come up with all the reasons to say that I am well within my rights to do so. But as a human being, I am not certain. That’s because I would mind, even though I am sure I would never do anything wrong, if I were in the other person’s shoes.

Two daddys and no mommy….

In News Reports, Reading, Society on July 13, 2014 at 9:30 am

I asked my mother yesterday if she kept watch over what I was reading when I was growing up. She said no. She said she was happy enough that I was reading something – whether it be crime or romance novels or comics. I think she would have flipped if she had come across I book I had bought in much younger days which had a homosexual theme. Not that I knew. I just grew increasingly uncomfortable until I reached the pages which graphically described homosexual activity. I shut the book, totally embarrassed. I never spoke of it to anyone and it was at least a year before I re-read the book. By the way, this is not a trashy book of pornography or a book in the children’s section. It’s by Tom Hollinghurst, mind you.

My second introduction to the LGBT community was way back in the 1980s when I was in San Francisco, perambulating along Castro Street at night. After catching sight of a few same-sex couples openly kissing along the street, I took a taxi home to my hotel. My companion, an Israeli, was shocked that I was shocked by the scenes as well as my explanation that I have never seen such sights in my own country. “What sort of country is Singapore?’’ he asked. Would that he came down to our little red dot a couple of weeks ago to see a park filled with pink! How far we have come…

I wonder how I would react if my five-year old nephew starts asking me questions about Tango Makes Three. “Godma, how come there are two Daddy penguins and no Mommy penguin?’’

I read him plenty of fairytales and bedtime stories as well as made-up ones with plenty of giants, dinosaurs, monsters and aliens. He laps them up, asking me why there is a man named Friday in Robinson Crusoe and why the Lady in the Lake in King Arthur doesn’t drown. Parents know better than me about the questions children ask. There’s not enough time to google the answers and so you come up with your own made-up answers. Because Friday appeared on a Friday, I said, which is what the book says. And the lady of the lake (here’s the cop-out) has very special, magic powers. Monsters are, of course, “very bad’’, witches and wizards are “evil’’ except Merlin in King Arthur who is “good’’. Dinosaurs are usually very big but there are also smaller ones which do not eat people. I think I confused the poor boy thoroughly.

I pity parents. The world is not so black and white but how do you explain the shades of grey to a mere child? Or should you paint the world in black and white while they are young in a “foundation-laying exercise’’, and leave them to figure out the colours in-between as they get older? That’s what happened to me anyway. I don’t think I turned out too badly.

So what is this fuss about penguins and swans all about really? Am I worried that my five-year old nephew reading the books will start thinking that homosexuality is a normal way of life? And what if I get asked the question? I might resort to a made-up answer that they are “special’’ people, different, not like your mommy and daddy. Not like me. Then cop out with “when you grow up, you will understand’’. Better, I suppose, than “when you grow up, don’t be like them’’? Then again, I am not a parent. It would be well within a parent’s right to bring up their children in whatever way they want. So long as they don’t teach them to hate.

The thing, though, is just that the world has changed, and Singapore too, so has the variety of books available for children and adults. Books with homosexual themes are more prevalent than ever. As adults, we pick what we want to read. It is a choice. Read or don’t read. The National Library Board’s concern is that unsupervised children may unwarily pick up books that it deems “unsuitable’’ on its premise. I suppose it is worried about some insidious brain-washing taking place. It is therefore policing morals, and using the State’s position that this is reflective of moral values of the mainstream to justify its policy. I suppose it can go further and say it is funded by the State, therefore…you know how the argument goes.

But the flip side is what the role of a library should be. Should it be a mere repository of words, both informed and uninformed and whether right or wrong (in whoever’s point of view)? Or should there be other social and even political objectives grafted onto its being?

The whole NLB kerfuffle boils down to playing “nanny’’. The NLB/G doesn’t think parents supervise children well enough and so makes the decision on what it believes are on the parents’ behalf to make books unavailable. Of course, you will have people jumping up and down at this presumption that the G knows the right stuff for children to read. (It’s not unlike how the G thinks we don’t know how to invest our money to make better returns than what the CPF/GIC can.)

I think parents today can no longer take the position that my mother did with me given the variety of books unless they hahaaha ban their kids from going to the library unsupervised! (Quite different from “buying’’ books, because there will be “parental supervision’’. I don’t think any parent will pay for a book without flipping through it.)

It is not politically correct to say so, but I bet there are plenty who just let their children be when it comes to reading material. Just like those who leave their children free to use the Internet or watch whatever television programme they want. I figure such parents would happy that the State will do the policing, any sort of policing, because they don’t have the time, cannot be bothered to or don’t know how to.

I am not in favour of the G being a nanny. But I can see how some parents would be quite happy for the G to make decisions on their behalf. Educated parents can fuss over what their children read, and explain or advocate for the values that they want their children to grow up with. But there are those who can’t.

Just as we have different grades for movies and theatre, I don’t see why supposedly non-conformist books for children need to be destroyed. Put them in a section which calls for parental guidance – not to be loaned out. Wouldn’t that solve the problem of parental choice? It’s a compromise between those who want them banned and those who want free circulation.

But, hey, we are all feeling our way around this brave new world.


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