A proposed amendment to the Environmental Public Health Bill aims to raise standards in the cleaning industry with a new licensing framework from next year. The new rules require firms to have higher paid-up capital to invest in manpower and capabilities. Heidi Ng reports.
Video Source: Youtube – Official CNA Channel
Separately, the cleaning business licensing framework will introduce three classes of licences, all valid for two years at a time.
Currently, there is only one type of licence for cleaning businesses, and it is valid for one year and is renewable.
Under the proposed framework, the Class 3 licence, which has requirements similar to the current licence’s, is a non-renewable one available only once to new businesses and those still licensed under the current regime from Dec 31, 2023.
It is meant to give new entrants leeway to ramp up their operations and ultimately commit themselves to the industry, as well as give existing players two more years to grow to what two higher classes of licences require.
In the long run, cleaning businesses are expected to at least hold the renewable Class 2 licence, which requires licensees to hold a paid-up capital of $25,000.
This paid-up capital requirement was introduced to ensure that operators can keep up with wage climbs under the cleaning sector’s existing PWM for the long haul and adopt more technology, NEA said.
Firms with higher capabilities may apply for the Class 1 licence, an enhanced tier with a higher skills bar requiring staff to complete at least three Workforce Skills Qualifications training modules, compared with two modules for Class 2 and 3 licensees.
Class 1 licence holders also must have more paid-up capital – $250,000 – and be free of convictions in the 24 months preceding its application. This licence replaces the voluntary accreditation that firms currently apply for separately from the existing licensing regime under the Enhanced Clean Mark Accreditation Scheme.
Said NEA: “Class 1 licensees can signal their commitment to invest in training of the workforce to attain more cleaning competencies, and to provide more assurance to service buyers that they are equipped with further resources to undertake larger cleaning projects.”
Both Class 1 and Class 2 licensees need to attain Level 3 on the bizSafe workplace safety and health programme too.
Mr Chew Ming Fai, NEA deputy chief executive of public health and director-general of public health, told reporters at a briefing that the agency is looking into revising an existing requirement for government agencies to procure cleaning services only from accredited businesses.
“We are looking into whether this requirement can be revised such that government procurement agencies procure cleaning services from Class 1 licensees in the long run.”
About one-third of the 1,550 licensed cleaning businesses currently qualify for at least a Class 2 licence, said NEA.
The criteria for a Class 2 licence are reasonably attainable, said Mr Tony Chooi, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore.
The association has 114 member firms, which together hire about 70 per cent of cleaners at NEA-registered firms, with almost half of its members hiring 100 cleaners or fewer.
“We feel that the paid-up capital reflects the company’s commitment to the cleaning business. This commitment would translate into investment in improving professionalism, which is necessary to uplift overall cleaning standards and contribute to building a more resilient and competent workforce,” Mr Chooi said.
Consolidation of market players could occur, he said, noting that the number of NEA-licensed cleaning businesses is high, considering Singapore’s size and population.
SINGAPORE – The construction sector remained the most pressed for labour as at last September, with almost one position unfilled for every labourer it hired.
Reflecting the shortage of blue-collar workers – who make up a fifth of Singapore’s. 3.5 million resident workforce – seven out of the 10 jobs with the most need for staff were for operational roles such as bus drivers, security guards, cleaners and table-service employees.
Some of these jobs will come under the Progressive Wage Model, which will cover lower-wage workers in the food service sector, administrators and drivers in March.
The trends were seen in the latest job vacancy data released by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Friday.
The percentage of unfilled positions wanted for each job is measured against the total number of vacancies in its respective industry, which can be construction, manufacturing, transportation and storage, as well as others.
Three white-collar jobs – marketing sales executive, software developer and software applications manager – were among the 10 professions that had the least success in finding workers.
MOM also reported vacancies in different occupational groups and qualifications.
Among professionals, coaches and trainers were the most in demand, with 13.6 per cent vacancies. Welders and flame cutters were the most sought-after in the craftsmen category, at 29.5 per cent.
Among clerical support workers, the general office clerk probably had the widest choice of employer, with 56.4 per cent vacancies, or one opening for every employed clerk.
For job seekers with a diploma, getting a management executive position was their best bet, while those with a degree or higher qualifications had the best chance at a sales and marketing executive job, which had 8.9 per cent room to hire.
For 2023, recruiters are pointing to technology and banking as hot job sectors. There will also be opportunities in healthcare, sustainability and cyber security.
SINGAPORE – Hawker centres may get automated table cleaners under the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) plan to support manual labour.
A two-month trial of a robot will be conducted at a suitable hawker centre and stallholders there will not need to bear any costs of the trial, an NEA spokesman told The Straits Times.
Observers said the robot could help to meet the manpower crunch as the cleaning workforce ages, but its development might be slowed by the still-developing autonomous table-cleaning technology.
In a tender called by NEA on Nov 7, the agency said that while its tray-return policy has drastically reduced the workload on the cleaning workforce, there is a need to supplement manual cleaning labour with automation that can patrol, clean and wipe tables that have been vacated.
Even after the returning of trays was made mandatory in June 2021, cleaners generally must still clean dining tables as well as sort and clear used crockery, cutlery and trays of food remnants at tray-return stations before used items are washed, the NEA spokesman said.
Autonomous table-cleaning robots can support and complement cleaners so that tables are cleaned faster, she added.
According to tender documents, the robot should be able to clean the table in under one minute and navigate from table to table within another minute, leaving unsuitable tables for human cleaners.
If successful, the machine could be one of the earliest mass-produced table-cleaning robots in the world, said observers and robot developers.
Associate Professor Pham Quang Cuong from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering said that while the technology for automated floor-cleaning robots is widely commercialised, those that can clean tables appear to still be at an early stage.
In November 2021, for instance, Google disclosed that it had developed a robot that can wipe tables with a squeegee, but to date, the machine is still not mature enough to be commercialised, said Prof Pham.
Cleaning robots that are currently commercially available are used only for routine and repetitive tasks such as cleaning floors, windows and swimming pools, not for dynamic environments, said service robot company Ourglass Robotics’ chief executive William Dai.
Mr Ling Ting Ming, founder and CEO of robotics company Otsaw, said NEA’s robot will need to navigate crowds on top of cleaning crockery.
He said: “Having a robot navigate dynamic groups of humans will be a challenge, especially since hawker centres can get quite crowded and are not built for robot cleaners to move between tables.”
While NEA did not disclose the location of the trial, tender documents said the robot must be able to pass between tables spaced apart like those in Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre.
Hawkers at the centre told ST on Nov 25 that they had previously observed another table-cleaning robot being trialled at the centre, adding that any future robots had to be faster for them to be convinced.
Ms Wei Xia, 46, who was manning the Beef King by Yassin Kampung stall, said: “If it could lower the costs of cleaning that would be good, but when a table-cleaning robot was trialled a few months ago, I felt that humans were faster.”
Freshly Made Hong Kong Style Zhu Chang Fen stallholder Kevin Yong, 60, who noticed that the robot stopped whenever people walked past it, said he was concerned that the machine might stall during peak hours because of human traffic.
Said Mr Yong, who identified himself as the secretary of Marsiling Mall Merchants’ and Hawkers’ Association: “Just one table is going to take donkey’s years.”
The recent tender comes amid a surge in the use of autonomous cleaning robots in the healthcare and hospitality sectors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hotel chains such as Hilton, InterContinental and Marriott are using robots for room cleaning and to make room service deliveries, said Professor David Tan, co-director of National University of Singapore’s Centre for Technology, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and the Law.
He added that in a future where autonomous table-cleaning robots are deployed, organisations will have to determine which parties are responsible for paying compensation if a cleaning robot spills a bowl of hot soup onto a young child.
It should also not come at the cost of vulnerable segments in Singapore, he said.
He said: “In Singapore, the use of cleaning robots may arguably be more efficient or even desirable in the light of the manpower crunch experienced by the food and beverage sector.
“However, one also has to look at the social impact of such accelerated automation, as more vulnerable segments of our local population may be relying on such cleaning jobs as their stable source of income.”
Ourglass Robotics’ Mr Dai said it is more productive and efficient to make robots that can help workers, instead of ones to replace them. He added that many of the elderly workers his company has spoken to have fears that they might be replaced by machines.
He said: “Elderly workers are still better at wiping the table. They are just not strong enough to carry (heavy items) and can’t walk fast enough.
“Pairing up workers with a delivery robot is a good solution. It can turn a cleaner auntie into a robot supervisor or a super-auntie – that would make her feel better.”
Source: The Strait Times
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future of blue-collared work. As the co-founder of Nimbus, we build technology to make it easy for our clients to run their office. Unlike other on-demand startups, we do not employ people as independent contractors nor do we seek to replace our workers with robots. On the contrary, we invest a lot in proper employment, hiring, training and paying our blue-collar workers well to perform both scheduled and on-demand work from cleaning to aircon servicing and pantry stock up.
However, our good jobs strategy seems to fly in the face of the prevailing wisdom that robotics and automation will eventually replace all routine and mundane work. There is a passage in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book Race Against the Machines that best encapsulates what I call the ‘Futurist’ view of work:
“Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. As we’ll demonstrate, there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”
I think the view is misguided – arguments about the future of work are too often framed in binary terms: either robot or human worker, machine learning or human memory. The reality is even if machines do take over some form of human activities in blue-collar work, it does not necessarily spell the end of the jobs in that line of work. The answer is often a bit more nuanced. I submit humans possess a lot of tacitknowledge that’s very hard to capture and automate. Overall, I think there are reasons to be bullish about the overall demand for blue-collar work. I shall outline my rationale below.
If we take a step-back to unpack this argument, Futurists who believe in books like The Rise of Robots argue typically make two critical assumptions:
(1) ‘Low-skilled’ jobs like cleaning and plumbing are routine and mundane, and it’s easy to build a robot to perform all of these tasks
(2) Robots are cheaper in the long run and less prone to human error which encourages a substitution effect from labor intensiveness to one which is more machinery intensive
Therefore, it follows from (1) and (2) blue-collared work like cleaning would soon be substituted by machines.
While the logic of the apocalypse view described above seems convincing, the first problem it faces is it flies in the face of empirical evidence that there are still many jobs available out there.
In his Ted Talk, MIT professor David Autor highlighted that many technological innovations over the last 200 years that were explicitly designed to replace human labor- Tractors, Assembly lines, Computers you name it- have succeeded. However, the percentage of US adults employed in the labor market is higher now in 2016 than it was during the industrial revolution.
Let’s first take the example of the ATM. Since the introduction of ATMs, which was widely touted to replace bank tellers, the number of human bank tellers employed in the United States has also roughly doubled, from a quarter of a million in 1970 to about a half a million today. Research by Basker (2015) showed that while barcode scanners have reduced a cashiers’ check out times by “18-19%, the absolute number of cashiers has grown at an annual rate of 2.1% between the 1980s through to 2013 since scanners were widely deployed during the 1980s.”
And the same phenomena can be seen in blue-collar work. In Singapore, Census data suggests there are more cleaners and laborers in 2000 than there were in 1990. Employment insights platform, Skillta also shows the demand for cleaners in Singapore is consistently increasing week-over-week. In absolute terms, there seem to be more cleaners and blue-collar workers than ever before.
In other words, there are still plenty of jobs around.
Now, this is not to say that machines have never succeeded in eradicating jobs. Examples of the lift operators or agricultural work in the US immediately comes to mind. But widespread unemployment due to technology has never materialized before, and it certainly does not look to be the case for blue-collared work. In fact, rather than automation accelerating job redundancy, I predict it will slow down. It is because so far, when it comes to automation, we have been picking the low hanging fruit first and this has given us an overly optimistic idea of how easy is it is to automate a job fully.
If machines can increasingly do the work for firms, why doesn’t this make labor and skills redundant?
I wonder how many people who make predictions of cleaners ever did a cleaning shift before to see what is it a cleaner exactly does. Cleaners don’t just clean as an autonomous iRobot ‘cleans.’ They have to take stock of missing pantry items. They determine what constitutes trash or valuable office items or where best dispose what kinds of trash. They water the office plants. They also have to analyse when best to clear the trash depending on an office’s workflow and meeting schedule. When talking to employees in an office, they act as customer representatives. When working with the office manager, they serve as a workspace consultant. They learn what the best way to clean specific areas. Many of these tasks require very ad-hoc and human judgment. These tacit knowledge are difficult to transfer.
Tyler Cowen gives a great example of another blue-collar occupation- truck drivers. In his commentary, he points out truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They act as security for the load, they also “secure loads, including determining what to load first and last … They deal with the government and others at weighing stations… they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc.”
In other words, the Futurists analyses of machines substituting routine work tends to overlook the complexity of blue-collar jobs at the granular level, severely underestimating the importance of local, tacit knowledge.
At Nimbus, when we deploy autonomous vacuum cleaners or robots to take over some of the activities of our workers, this does not spell the end of our worker ’s jobs In fact, it boosts the demand for our workers to perform complementary tasks, like fault-reporting of office space, conducting pantry stock-taking or socialising with new employees in an office environment to make them feel welcome.
In the services sector, where workers are often over utilised, the adoption of more machinery and robotics can alleviate the strain and increase the leverage of workers to become more productive. This often leads to higher salaries, more exciting work and just as many jobs as ever before. In this sector, machines are tools to enhance human productivity, not agents of creative destruction.
Task displacement does not equal job redundancy.
Furthermore, suppose even if a machine can be so efficient and automate many of the tasks of a single worker, job creation can still happen due to a firm’s increasing bullishness to expand their output. It could indirectly create more employment.
It was the case in the earlier example of the ATM. As David Autor showed, even while the number of bank tellers per branch fell by a third because it became much cheaper to run and open new bank branches, banks became more bullish about their business, and the net result was more branches, more bank tellers. And these bank tellers started to do different works which the machine couldn’t. For example, they began to do less of the cash-handling tasks and focused more on forging relationships with customers, troubling shooting banking issues and upselling more banking products and services. In this case, task displacement by a machine has occurred, and it led to more employment. Task displacement does not necessitate human replacement.
In the future, no doubt there will be new and better autonomous robots, more software and technology to automate office maintenance and cleaning. But at the end of the day (quite literally speaking), I am willing to bet someone will still have to service the space, top up the chemicals, water for the robotic cleaning machines, clear the trash, check for dust in non-obvious spots or welcome new employees with a friendly smile.
In my mind, the future of work and technology is symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.
Innovative business models that aim to co-opt and build technology that empowers their workers, rather than replace them are the smarter bet.
As part of a code of practice that will kick in by October, company leaders in Singapore will soon have to follow a set of measures to ensure safety and health at the workplace. There have been 37 workplace deaths in Singapore in just nine months. Speaking at a Workplace Safety and Health Conference, Manpower Minister said some were due to inadequate control measures or not following safety procedures.
Video Source: Youtube – Official CNA Channel
How far has environmental management and sustainability come in the past five years, and how does EMAS play into this?
The Environmental Management Association of Singapore (EMAS) was first established in 1986 by service providers from the cleaning, waste management and pest control industries. The aim of EMAS is to provide a cohesive platform for companies in the environmental industry to raise the professionalism of the sector, and address the common concerns of environmental and hygienic services.
In the context of the cleaning industry, environmental management and sustainability are about keeping Singapore clean, and how this effort can be sustained for the long term in view of the challenges faced by the industry.
Sustainability, in our view, is also about the general public taking social and collective responsibility – in playing their part to keep community spaces clean. In the long term, through community efforts, reduces the workload for the cleaning workforce; thereby helping the industry gravitate towards focusing on deep cleaning and sanitising/disinfection of those community spaces and the environment at large.
EMAS as a trade association spearheads several initiatives in partnership with government agencies. We then collaborate with our industry members so that information is shared effectively via several modes of engagement.
Some of these topics include information on best practices that are innovative and environmentally friendly, reducing wastage, and improving productivity. Cleaning companies are encouraged to adopt such solutions, in order to better manage the labour crunch, and ensure sustainability in the long term.
What are some of the challenges that have been thrown EMAS’ way and what is the association doing to overcome them?
The challenges have always been related to labour – manpower shortage due to an ageing workforce and locals shunning cleaning roles despite an increase in demand for services, and the private sector’s preference for headcount-based contracting.
EMAS has been working with related government agencies and industry players to propose a multi-prong approach in trying to overcome these challenges.
Firstly, EMAS is exploring alternative ways to attract locals – by redefining and redesigning jobs. With the proliferation of digital and automated solutions, cleaning businesses can transition workers upwards in the value chain.
As laborious tasks are reduced or eliminated, businesses are encouraged to relook their hiring processes to refresh job hiring descriptions, roles and responsibilities to reflect the more vibrant and interesting aspects of the role. With less emphasis placed on repetitive tasks, workers can be more engaged in value-adding aspects of the work.
Second, EMAS recognises that both service buyers and service providers seek value in agreements entered. To achieve this, both parties must ultimately align and shift focus towards objectives and outcomes (and not being tasks-based).
Taking an outcome-based approach can help unlock value for both stakeholders as it prioritises the achievement of goals, rather than a focus on the input of resources required.
The adoption of Outcome-based Contracts (OBCs) can help ease the shortages in manpower as contractual agreements focus on outcomes, while operations focus on productivity and continuous improvement through innovation. The most crucial factor in this model is the clear definitions of performance requirements in the agreement. Both service buyers and service providers must also engage in conversations on expectations. As such, more education is needed in order to bring more stakeholders on board.
In order for OBCs to be a successful model in the cleaning industry, there must be an ecosystem to support it. EMAS is currently in talks with several related agencies and industry players to enable this in the areas of training, information sharing and outreach.
Lastly, EMAS and society as a whole, need to protect and uplift the very people who help to make Singapore clean, green and hygienic for everyone. To protect our cleaners, in June 2021, EMAS as part of the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners, mapped out new wage levels and skills requirements for workers in the cleaning industry, with higher salary increments planned for the next six years under the Progressive Wage Model.
How did EMAS keep their members focused and engaged during the pandemic?
EMAS has been engaging actively with several government agencies to ensure timely information reaches our members – as can be seen from the fluidity of the pandemic situation. We have also worked with our strategic partner agencies to draft (and also update) advisories for the industry.
Additionally, EMAS also collates and shares information on a timely basis with all our members. In the event of anomalies, we help to seek advice from the relevant agency. In other instances, EMAS has helped our members to appeal on matters if there are genuine reasons for deviating from the norm.
Lastly, we gather on-ground feedback and industry information for the agencies – such as foreign manpower shortages brought about by travel restrictions, shortage of cleaning solutions at the time, as well as disrupted business activities during the pandemic.
How does speaking at events like CleanEnviro Summit Singapore (CESG) help to broaden the association’s reach?
EMAS’ vision is to uplift the industry and be the voice/bridge between industry players and government agencies; through regular communication and information sharing sessions.
CESG is a global networking platform for thought leaders, senior government officials and policymakers, regulators and industry captains to convene, confer and co-create clean environment solutions. Since 2012, attendance at CESG has been increasing from about 19,000 in 2012, to more than 24,000 in 2018.
While 2022’s attendance may be affected due to Covid, CESG is still an important platform for us to conduct outreach to potential members to share more about EMAS’ values. The more members we have, the better we are at collation and sharing of information that may be useful in crafting policies for the cleaning industry.
Associations rely on conferencing as a major source of income. How did EMAS obtain varied sources of revenue and perhaps, deployed cost-cutting in other areas?
Many events and conferences were postponed in the past two years, hence affecting income. EMAS has always been prudent with its costs. Purchases were either postponed or cancelled, unless they are business-critical.
Alternative ways of getting the job done were explored to reduce expenses. Our membership has increased; and we have explored and taken on several programmes/initiatives to increase our sources of income. EMAS has also adopted relevant grants or funding support in order to streamline our expenses.
What are some of the lessons EMAS has learnt from the pandemic and how are you a different association today compared to pre-Covid?
We have learnt that there are some cleaning companies which have no knowledge of support or information that can assist them. We are now more effective in the way we communicate and organise initiatives in our outreach to members. We acknowledge that digitisation and training are important even as an association, and have put together a plan to improve in these areas.
EMAS has evolved to a stronger and better association during the last two years of the pandemic. EMAS understands the importance of hygiene cleaning and will continue to advocate high cleaning standards in Singapore.
We will continue to equip our industry with the right know-how and skillset to tackle the next wave of “Pandemic X”.
Could you share some of EMAS’ future plans and projects?
Currently, EMAS has plans to accelerate digitalisation in our business processes. Other plans include learning trips, as well as to have deeper engagements with members and industry players through dialogues, webinars, seminars and events.
In the future, EMAS is moving forward to build capabilities and enhance knowledge of OBC. We are working with training providers to develop our own training arm to curate and develop training programmes on OBC. This will equip service buyers with essential skills in preparing contract specifications according to outcome-based principles, specifying outcome-based requirements, performance standards, etc. The courses will also be useful for service providers to gain understanding from a service buyer’s perspective, as well as knowledge of OBC contracts. This will be done in tandem to facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge to effectively manage OBC from both parties’ perspectives.
Another goal is to help build future talent and leadership within cleaning organisations, which will, in turn, build a resilient cleaning industry for many years to come.