I was invited to check out a demonstration of this machine called the “Robo-Cutter” and I got really excited because, WTF, it’s a robot that cuts grass, right?
No it wasn’t what I expected – there wasn’t any artificial intelligence about it, and it couldn’t deploy itself automatically where it sensed the grass was tall. It was really just a remote controlled grass-cutting tractor.
I put my disappointment aside, and spoke to the person who was heading the demonstration, Mr Neo Say Hwee of Ho Eng Huat Construction Pte Ltd.
He had purchased the Robo-Cutter for something close to $100,000. Close to half of it was subsidised by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which has a grant called the Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP).
In one fell swoop, Mr Neo cut down on his reliance for cheap foreign labour, which was utilised in landscape maintenance tasks for the old grass cutters. The Robo-Cutter can now do the equivalent job of half a dozen masked men (grass-cutting ninjas), while using only one trained operator.
While I don’t have the exact numbers to crunch, I think that while the government continues to tighten the supply of cheap foreign labour, companies like Mr Neo’s will still stride forward when grants like IGP are applied judiciously to help innovative additions, like the Robo-Cutter.
More importantly, the employees trained to operate these smart machineries will be able to be paid more. The job is also made easier and safer as they are able to operate the machine from a distance under the shade, lowering the possibilities of heat and other injuries.
This, I think is the best way to go about the increasing required wage. A mandatory minimum wage level with nothing else is just going to see companies like Mr Neo’s being forced to pay more for grass-cutting ninjas, and the costs inevitably will be passed on to their clients.
Unfortunately, many maintenance contracts in this particular sector are still mired in old terms and requirements. They restrict companies’ ability to take the leap and innovate, like how Mr Neo has done with his company.
Contracts still stipulate how many persons are required to do the job, and buyers tend to want a discount when you tell them you are going to use fewer men. Worse, some may be shocked and not want to award you the contract when you tell them you are going to use a robot and one man.
Terms need to be changed. Buyers need to know that the essence of the contract is in whether a job can be done well and quickly, regardless of how many people are used. With the labour supply crunch several industries are facing, it will make the most sense to do this, and make the best use of every worker by giving them the best work opportunities and do the best to reward them once the job is done in a safer and more efficient way.
As you can see, it takes an effort in concert – the buyer, the contractor and the worker have to change the way things are done in order to move this along, in order for all three parties to benefit.
When I’ve worn my other hat as a small business and start up consultant, I’ve heard excuses like “I dowan to take Gahmen money sekali got strings attached”, or “Customer don’t want to change contract”, even when presented with really, really attractive grants and cash incentives which have no strings attached (unless you think that “strings” include paying taxes).
It is exasperating. If these companies don’t revisit the opportunities available now to benefit everyone, they’re going to be in for a rough ride when they’re left behind, while the early adopters reap the benefits of a transformed economy.
It is timely this National Day (the one before the Big 50) that we pay heed to these steps and not just wish for it to happen. We need to work towards this transformation. The buck stops with everyone.