Don't neglect VWOs' ground staffs

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A Voluntary Welfare Organisation (VWO) starts with a simple idea – to help the less fortunate, said Ameerali Abdeali, President of the Muslim Kidney Action Association (MKAC).

But soon Ameerali along with many other VWOs would realise that the world of charity is just like any other sectors. It has to be pragmatic and is held together only by people who need a fair wage.

“What I have learned is I need to be fair to my staff. They have to support their own family and pay their own bills too, like everyone else. It is not right for anyone to take advantage of these staff just because they are dedicated to a charitable profession [working in a VWO],” the 63-year-old semi-retiree said.

Ameerali’s organisation, which  started in 2004, has 2 administrative staff, one social worker and one committed volunteer. MKAC is mostly funded by private donations through their fund-raising programme and individual donors.

One of his administrative staff, Sharifah Fauziah, 45, said: “To be honest, working in a VWO is not enough to support your family [with children]. My husband contributes a lot more than I do financially to the family.”

“I like the fact we are making another personís life out there better. But there is a general perception that social workers cannot expect much in terms of salary because it is charity,” she said.

Ameerali, her boss, said that this uneven playing field between private sectors and VWOs must change. VWOs must be seen as a professional field.

“If a decent wage for a person of a certain caliber is $2500, then they should be paid $2500. They should not be paid less just because they are into social work,” he said.

Shira Elise (not her real name), 24, who works in a 15-employee children VWO commented: “Sure, our returns are usually from watching a client finally getting back on their feet but we live in a society where Singapore is considered one of the most expensive places to live in.”

Shira said the biggest worry for a VWO is the high turnover rate of ground workers. Her VWO has seen many quit their job after three months due to low salary.

The National Council of Social Service has put the starting salary of a social worker (with a degree in social work) at $2760. But a VWO generally consists of a large number of ground staffs like administrative, IT support and social service assistant staffs apart from social workers. An average pay of a social service assistant is only $1200. A clerical worker has an average pay of $1450.

Last Tuesday in Parliament, the MP for Hougang, Png Eng Huat, pointed out that the government must provide more support to VWOs to continue to be the ‘arms and legs’ that reach out to the community.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development has just allocated $19.42 million to the Care and Share grants for capacity building among VWOs.

By the end of the year, the NCSS will start a unit to recruit, groom and deploy some 200 to 300 social service leaders to different agencies, said Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing in Parliament on March 13.

However the Asian Women Welfare Organisation (AWWA) that has 300 permanent staff said that many VWOs still face a daily struggle with manpower cost.

AWWA’s Community Partnership representative, Karen Liew, said: “Things may not be so simple as just rolling out a new system [new allocation to Care and Share Grants] which can bring about better operational efficiency. It also means we need more IT support and manpower to do data entry but what happens after the one-time off grant for the project ends? Where will money come from to support the staff for continual effort and work by the VWO?”

VWOs generally do not get funding for non-programme manpower such as IT support and administrative staff,  she added. Transportation that costs the AWWA $600,000 a year is not fully funded current available schemes or grants.

Pointing out that manpower eats up 80 per cent of the cost of a VWO, AWWA said that funding might not always cover the number  of staff necessary to run a quality program.

“For example, we need to place two staff to handle a class of eight students as our students are of moderate to severe condition despite the funding model is based on only one teacher,” said Liew.

Ameerali added that VWOs are stuck in a gridlock situation because they could not afford to cut back on their expenses in these programmes.

“If you do not have a strong pool of ground staff including administrative support to run your programmess, donors will not support you. And if you leave a negative impression with your donors, your days as a VWO is pretty much numbered,” he explained.

The Handicap Welfare Association’s (HWA) corporate communications executive, Angeline Yap also said that the difficulty in retaining staff for VWOs might push VWOs to charge their clients more in the future.

“The hiring crunch may leave us with no options but to increase our service fees in the future. As we provide crucial healthcare services to the disadvantaged in the community, we may risk turning away the needy if we increase our service fees,” she said.

One final solution may be to allow foreign workers to be the arms and legs of Singapore’s VWOs, according to Yap.

“We believe that the Government should consider helping and giving exceptions for VWOs in hiring foreign professionals as those in the social service sector are giving dedicated care to Singaporeans and contributing to the well-being of the community. This will help VWOs like HWA to provide affordable services and the best care possible for our beneficiaries.”