What We Owe To Each Other: Student Wages at Yale-NUS
story | Avani Adhikari, Staff Writer
photo | Sharan Sambhi
The buttery is a mess. It’s 11 pm, the height of the second shift. A sports team, just back from training, has ordered 6 ‘adlins’ – indomie noodles with egg and a beef patty. Even though there are three people manning the kitchen, the workload never seems to decrease. The hot steam of indomie hits your face, fogging up your glasses and condensing in greasy drops. You do not have a moment to rest, yet somehow, from beyond the counter you manage to hear someone say “Ugh, all this waiting for a soggy indomie – What is even taking so long?”
I’ve worked at the buttery for almost two semesters now and have had genuinely positive experiences throughout. Working at the buttery has allowed me to meet many interesting people and make my own food, which is a welcome change from just going to the dining hall. I have been extremely grateful for this opportunity, but working for the buttery is not without its problems.
Nobody can deny that compared to all the other campus jobs, working at the buttery is more physically demanding. We rarely get time to sit, have to dispose of heavy vats of used cooking oil, and, in addition to cleaning up our own mess, have to clean up the fridge and the common microwave, which is technically beyond our job scope.
Yet, we are still paid the campus minimum wage. Call me biased, but I believe that the work we do is worth much more than just $9/hr. For working on my feet nonstop, I get paid less than 4 adlins (3 if you don’t bring a bowl).
For starters, this pay rate is not without its own controversy. Buttery workers earn the campus minimum wage of $9/hr, which is more than what you might earn working at a cafe outside, as Singapore has no minimum wage law. For example, Royals Bistro at UTown only pays its workers $6.50/hr.
However, this doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. There is definitely room for improvement. The pay scale at Yale-NUS increases according to “technical skills”, with peer tutors earning the most at $20/hr, according to the pay rate guide on the Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE)’s website. Lab workers and research assistants are all paid much less because their work is seen as having a “low barrier to entry”. Knowing all this, I have to ask – who makes the decision that certain jobs are technical and certain are not?
By paying lab assistants and buttery cooks less, jobs that require us to be on our feet often, we are making the assumption that mental labor of manning desks and tutoring, is somehow worth more than our physical labor. Furthermore, according to the pay rate, the higher paying jobs are often times only reserved for upperclassmen, and often have a high barrier to entry. What then, are the first-years, students who are supposed to find money to pay for the Student Effort Contribution (SEC), and often not skilled in GIS and Python at the same time, supposed to do?
Part of the need-based financial aid package, the SEC was implemented starting with the class of 2022. Now, students will have to pay a part of their school fees through money earned from working jobs throughout the year.
The Octant has already extensively covered the impact of the SEC. The expectation is that through on-campus employment, students will become financially independent with regards to their expenses. But I believe that financial independence can only become a reality if the campus job structure goes through a drastic reformation. There are simply not enough good paying, entry-level jobs on campus for first-years on the SEC.
Even if a student works a campus job for 10 hours a week (which is currently recommended by CIPE) for $9/hr, they will still not be able to cover their monthly expenses and pay the SEC. Furthermore, the expectation to work 10 hours is absurd. Not only does the Yale-NUS social and academic life sorely limit the free time we have, due to the popularity of entry jobs, the number of shifts available to each worker is very limited.
Student tour guides and Buttery workers for example are only able to sign up for a certain number of shifts. Typically, I am only able to work 3 hours a week. If I want to make a significant dent in paying off my SEC, I will have to take on multiple jobs.
While I am in no way ungrateful for my job, I think we should start a conversation regarding minimum wage on campus. How does the minimum wage which was decided years before the SEC was implemented, work now? How do we decide which jobs on campus fetch a higher pay? As Yale-NUS grapples with accusations of elitism, I think it is time for us to revisit how we look at jobs involving physical labor on campus, and how our employment structure impacts financially vulnerable students on SEC.
During my last shift, a student I had never met before came up to us to ask us what song we were playing because she liked it a lot. This interaction may seem insignificant, but I really appreciate connections like these. Though it gets hectic and submitting Request For Payment forms remains a nightmare, I really love working in the buttery. Sometimes, however, I wish that there was just a bit more consideration and debate about what it owes me. And maybe, with regards to other campus jobs, it is time to consider what we owe to each other.