Employers and unionists said the wage gap between younger and older workers in the lower-skilled sector is due to their different goals and strengths. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
FOR service workers like Madam Nancy Chang, 57, a higher age does not mean a higher wage.
As a fashion coordinator at retail chain G2000, she earns less than her much younger colleague, Mr Mohamed Nor Hanafi Abu Bakar, a 27-year-old supervisor.
In general, the older a manager or professional, the more they earn.
But for industries with a wide spread of lower-skilled workers, wages barely rise with age, according to a new government report. Instead, the Manpower Ministry's latest report on wages shows that older workers tend to earn less than younger ones.
Service and sales staff aged 55 to 59 - like Madam Chang - earn about three-quarters of what their younger peers make.
Those aged 60 to 64 earn around two-thirds of a young worker's pay.
The situation is similar for plant and machine operators, as well as cleaners, labourers and related workers.
In all these occupations, pay is highest for those in their late-30s or early-40s. Workers older than them earn less than the youngest group, aged 25 to 29.
But employers and unionists interviewed are not surprised, given the different goals and strengths of older and younger workers.
Firstly, older workers in the service industry tend to 'play a supporting role', said Singapore Retailers Association vice-president R. Dhinakaran.
They may work shorter hours and may not desire higher-paying positions that come with more responsibilities.
Mr Andy Lim, president of the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers' Union, said: 'Many would rather take a lower entry salary just to secure a job that keeps them occupied instead of doing nothing.'
Madam Chang, for one, is not worried about career progression. 'I am quite happy staying where I am, especially at my age,' she said. She joined G2000 in 2001 as a part-timer, and switched to full-time work in 2004.
Secondly, there is a distinction between older workers who have recently found jobs, and those who have been at it for years.
The old-timers will see their salaries rise with age, said Mr Dhinakaran, adding that newcomers' pay would be at the starting level.
Mr Lim said this is the case for most older workers in the service and sales industry.
In some industries, however, the wage gap may reflect a gap in skills or ability.
If older plant and machine operators earn less, 'the main reason is they don't have new knowledge', said Dr Moh Chong Tau, deputy president of the Singapore Manufacturers' Federation.
'Young workers straight from the ITE (Institute of Technical Education) and so on are trained in modern machines, so naturally they will earn more,' he said.
Youthfulness also makes cleaners and labourers more productive, said labour MP Zainal Sapari. They can multitask, do heavier tasks and simply do more.
It is the reason the labour movement encourages companies to adopt age-friendly machines that make it easier for older workers to be more productive, he said.
Still, even if older workers' lower wages are due to workers' preferences and market forces, companies have a moral responsibility to pay fair wages, said Mr Zainal.
Older cleaners may agree to lower pay if the workplace is near home, for instance. 'But if we think a cleaning job is worth a certain amount, we should pay that amount, and not take advantage of older workers,' he said.