Closing Speech at the Second Reading of the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment
05 OCT 2020
Closing Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, at the Second Reading of the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill
1 Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank Members for their broad support of the Bill. Your thoughtful comments and suggestions reflect the importance that we collectively place on preserving a clean and healthy environment for Singaporeans.
2 Members have raised pertinent points which can be broadly summarised as follows:
a. First, while the environmental sanitation regime focuses on premises managers taking responsibility for the cleanliness of their premises, we must also instil greater social responsibility for public hygiene, especially on the part of end-users.
b. Second, even as we lean on premises managers to take concrete steps to improve cleanliness, we must help them manage compliance costs.
c. Third, we must build on the capabilities of all key parties within the cleaning ecosystem, including the cleaning industry, cleaners, Environmental Control Coordinators (ECCs) and Environmental Control Officers (ECOs).
3 I fully agree. Let me address the issues.
Public Hygiene A Shared Responsibility
4 Ms Cheryl Chan, Mr Don Wee, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Ms Nadia Samdin, Ms Poh Li San, Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Derrick Goh, Ms Joan Pereira, Ms He Ting Ru and Ms Raeesah Khan have spoken passionately about the need for shared responsibility for public cleanliness, especially on the part of consumers and end-users. Members called for a shift away from the mindset of not caring about public spaces or amenities, simply because it is not our own.
5 Building shared responsibility is a key thrust of our SG Clean movement. We are working with partner organisations and SG Clean Ambassadors to communicate simple yet important social norms on cleanliness, such as binning used tissues and litter, and returning one’s tray at hawker centres.
6 We have also been exploring the use of behavioural science approaches to shape habits, as suggested by Ms Cheryl Chan and Ms Poh Li San. NEA has piloted the use of visual and audio cues to nudge users to return their trays at hawker centres. Mr Gan Thiam Poh would be happy to know that this helped to increase tray return rates at Zion Riverside Food Centre and Adam Road Food Centre by 19 percentage points and 42 percentage points respectively.
7 NEA has also piloted behavioural nudges such as placing posters with normative and emotive messages, in strategic locations, to encourage users to keep public toilets clean and dry. We will continue to push on this front.
Managing Regulatory Impact on Premises Managers
8 Let me now touch on how we will manage the regulatory impact on premises managers which several Members, including Ms Poh Li San and Mr Don Wee, have raised. We fully appreciate the concerns of businesses, especially in difficult economic climate that we are right now in.
9 Premises managers should view the enhanced measures as insurance against potentially much larger costs should an outbreak happen due to unsanitary conditions. Businesses benefit from having good environmental sanitation that protects the health of their customers and employees, and as one member have mentioned, the chefs that are working at the premises. Conversely, lapses in public health can cost them dearly. The F&B outlets and childcare centres involved in the gastroenteritis outbreaks in 2018 and 2019 know this from first-hand experience.
10 Against the backdrop of COVID-19, businesses are prioritising cleanliness and hygiene as assurance to customers and to woo them back. Over 24,000 premises have acquired the SG Clean Quality Mark which provides a stamp of assurance to occupants that the premises are clean.
Pragmatic Approach to Regulation
11 From the outset, we have adopted a pragmatic approach to ensure adequate standards, while managing the impact on businesses. We have been working closely with sectoral leads, such as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Early Childhood Development Agency and Singapore Food Agency (SFA), to develop environmental sanitation standards that take into account the needs and constraints of each sector.
12 As an illustration, let me share how we are working with SFA and coffeeshop owners to implement an environmental sanitation regime, while managing business costs for coffeeshop owners.
13 NEA is working closely with coffeeshop owners to put in place a regime that is practical and effective. The coffeeshop owner who is the premises manager may appoint his outlet supervisor as the ECC. Some members have voiced concerns about many of our elderly cleaners not able to meet the standards of the ECC. Let me assure members that we are not expecting all cleaners to be trained in ECC function. Every coffeeshop needs only one person to be appointed as an ECC. And that person can be an outlet supervisor doing it as part of his or her function. The outlet supervisor, after the requisite training, will have the competencies to tailor an appropriate environmental sanitation programme. It is tailoring because we will come up with a standard template that the different sectors can tailor to their own circumstances. Smaller coffeeshops may face more manpower constraints, we understand that. So taking in their feedback, NEA will allow a few small coffeeshop owners to collectively appoint one ECC for their premises, for economies of scale, should they require or prefer to do so. Alternatively, the owner may double-up as the ECC.
14 The environmental sanitation programme will focus on key areas that impact public health. For example, it will lay out daily cleaning frequencies for high-touch surfaces, such as seats and table-tops, as well as public amenities such as toilets. There must also be thorough periodic cleaning of hard-to-reach areas such as ceiling beams and overhead fixtures which can harbour rats and birds.
15 The coffeeshop owner will be required to conduct a comprehensive pest management survey periodically, say once every 6 months. Such inspections can surface defects for rectification, such as crevices to be sealed. The ECC will be trained in the basics of pest management so he can monitor pest management works. These preventive measures, coupled with good housekeeping, go a long way in tackling the root causes of the pest issues highlighted by Mr Gan Thiam Poh.
Sufficient Time for Transition
16 Let me assure Ms Nadia Samdin that we will provide sufficient lead time for stakeholders to adjust to the new regulations. In the first half of next year, NEA will refine the environmental sanitation standards in consultation with industry stakeholders, issue the Code of Practice, and train the ECCs. The training syllabus, which focuses on the basics of hygiene, is applicable to all sectors.
17 Implementation of the environmental sanitation regime will commence from mid-2021. We will start with a six-month advisory period for sectors to gradually adapt to the regulatory requirements, before enforcement begins. That would take us to the end of the year, and we will start enforcing in 2022.
18 Ms Poh Li San and Ms Nadia Samdin have asked to roll out the environmental sanitation regime to other premises. Ms Raeesah Khan has also asked for the framework in deciding which sectors to go first So we will start with implementation at higher-risk premises with immuno-vulnerable occupants such as eldercare and childcare facilities, high footfall such as coffeeshops or hawker centres, or a history of outbreaks such as coffeeshops and childcare centres. We will consider their suggestions when extending the regime to other premises in subsequent phases. This is also in response to Mr Shawn Huang’s suggestions that we should phase out the implementation so that there is time for the capacity to be built in the industry.
Keeping Costs Manageable
19 Mr Don Wee, Mr Gan Thiam Poh, Ms Poh Li San, Ms Joan Pereira and Mr Shawn Huang raised concerns about the cost impact of enhanced cleaning requirements.
20 We will help businesses, especially the small players, manage costs.
21 One area is manpower cost. We will allow flexibility for premises managers of small businesses to double up as ECCs. An ECC will be allowed to supervise cleaning works at a few branches or outlets, so long as he is able to handle the workload.
22 We will also help premises managers improve infrastructure and capabilities to enhance cleanliness, such as through NEA’s Toilet Improvement Programme for coffeeshops and hawker centres which Ms Joan Pereira might be interested in. We are also exploring with SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) on the possibility of subsidising training costs for ECCs and ECOs, a suggestion raised by Ms Nadia Samdin.
**Future-Proofing the Cleaning Ecosystem: Developing Capabilities, Supporting Workers
23 The third cluster of issues, which was raised by Mr Don Wee, Ms Nadia Samdin, Mr Louis Ng and Mr Desmond Choo, is about future-proofing the cleaning industry by raising capabilities and supporting the workers.
Developing Capabilities in the Cleaning Industry
24 As Mr Don Wee pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic has excerbated manpower shortages in the cleaning industry. Indeed, the industry is a growth area in jobs. And we want existing jobs to expand in skills and productivity so that more Singaporeans can get better paying jobs in the cleaning industry. This gives a strong impetus to accelerate the pace of digitalisation and automation in the cleaning industry to enhance productivity. This is a key thrust under the Environmental Services Industry Transformation Map (ESITM).
25 Cleaning companies have tapped on the enhanced Productivity Solutions Grant to adopt technology to overcome manpower constraints. As of 30 Sep 2020, NEA has approved 791 applications, with a total grant amount of $15.3 million.
26 We are seeing some results. Lionsbot, a local start-up which sells and rents out cleaning robots, has seen an increase in demand for their robots, with 80% more inquiries since the pandemic started. LionsBot will be building 300 autonomous cleaning robots and progessively deploying them across Singapore to scrub, mop, vacuum, sweep, shine and even transport cleaning equipment.
27 The cleaning robots can be rented by cleaning companies on a subscription basis so they do not need to invest in ownership and maintenance.
28 We are also upskilling workers in the cleaning industry. Workforce Singapore (WSG), in partnership with NEA and the Environmental Management Association of Singapore, has rolled out a new Place-and-Train Programme for Cleaning Specialists for Disinfection Services in August 2020. This programme enables cleaners and jobseekers to reskill to take on the role of a cleaning specialist.
29 Local cleaners performing general cleaning duties can also upgrade themselves by enrolling into the Continuing Education and Training courses on environmental infection control, with up to 90% training subsidy from SSG. With enhanced skillsets, these individuals can take on more specialised and skilled job roles that offer better salaries and career prospects.
30 As Members rightly pointed out, we must ensure that workers are fairly rewarded and can make a decent living. All cleaning businesses are required to provide wages stipulated under the Progressive Wage Model (PWM). With enhancements to the PWM, real median monthly gross wages of full-time resident cleaners have increased by 26% from 2014 to 2019, higher than the workforce’s median of 21%.
31 Other measures are in place to ensure fair labour practices in the cleaning sector. MOM worked with tripartite partners to encourage premises to provide rest areas for outsourced workers like cleaners. In view of the COVID-19 situation, NEA and MOM worked with tripartite partners to advise service buyers and providers to ensure the safety and health of cleaners, manage their workload, and remunerate them appropriately for additional responsibilities.
Developing Capabilities of ECCs and ECOs
32 The effectiveness of the environmental sanitation regime does not just depend on the cleaning industry; it also requires that ECCs and ECOs have the knowhow to assist the premises manager. Mr Louis Ng and Mr Desmond Choo have spoken on this.
33 Training for ECCs and ECOs will be customised to their needs and literacy levels as far as possible. For example, to cater for adult learners, the course does not stipulate educational qualifications and can accept trainees so long as ECCs can attain Workplace Literacy and Numeracy (WPLN) Level 5 for reading, listening, speaking and writing. ECOs will require WPLN Level 7, or Level 6 with 2 years of relevant working experience. This basic proficiency is necessary, as the ECCs and ECOs need to learn how to develop an environmental sanitation programme and convey clear instructions to cleaners.
34 Mr Louis Ng asked if the training course for ECCs and ECOs can be conducted in more languages and are suitable for seniors. Initially, training will be conducted in English but NEA will review the need to offer the course in more languages, depending on the trainees’ needs.
35 Taking into account employers’ needs, NEA will work with training providers to make the training course as concise as possible without compromising quality, and will provide bite-sized information or pictorial guides where possible.
36 As we gradually extend the environmental sanitation regime to more premises, there will be greater demand for competent ECCs and ECOs. In the next few years, we expect to enhance up to 15,700 ECC and ECO jobs under the environmental sanitation regime.
Other Public Hygiene Issues
Improving Public Toilet Cleanliness
37 Several Members, including Ms Poh Li San and Ms Cheryl Chan spoke about public toilets, and the importance of practising social responsibility in keeping them clean. Mr Louis Ng and Ms Cheryl Chan suggested introducing a cleanliness grading system for public toilets and tying it to licensing duration or fees for hawker centres and coffeeshops.
38 This overall approach of education and enforcement is broadly in line with our multi-pronged strategy to improve public toilet cleanliness.
a. Our first strategy is to improve design and infrastructure. As part of this, NEA is reviewing requirements for proper toilet design in the Code of Practice on Environmental Health, setting up model toilets in hawker centres, and supporting infrastructure upgrade under the Toilet Improvement Programme.
b. Second, NEA will step up surveillance and enforcement. Through the environmental sanitation regime, we will foster effective cleaning of toilets by mandating baseline standards. This is complemented by training programmes for toilet cleaners. We have also tightened penalties against toilet lapses since 1 April 2020, and NEA will continue with surveillance efforts through regular inspections.
c. Third, NEA will ramp up public education and promote good toilet etiquette. You may have heard of our recent Public Toilet Cleanliness Initiative, where NEA partnered the Restroom Association of Singapore to promote good toilet habits.
In line with Ms Poh Li San’s suggestion on involving citizens’ contribution, we have installed feedback panels in some hawker centre toilets, to gain insights on users’ perceptions and make more targeted infrastructural improvements and cleaning efforts. We are rolling out more initiatives. Do look out for the “Loo of the Future” Challenge to crowdsource for innovative toilet design ideas in the coming months.
39 On Mr Louis Ng and Ms Cheryl Chan’s suggestion of a cleanliness grading system, our primary focus now is to support the premises in achieving a set of baseline environmental sanitation standards.
40 Nonetheless, SFA will be introducing a new licensing and recognition framework for food establishments which will require them to have good track records on food safety and cleanliness. Major lapses in toilet cleanliness could conceivably affect their licence duration, which means they will have to go through licence audits more frequently if they have a short licence duration. This will motivate coffeeshops to maintain good track records and uphold cleanliness in their premises.
Conclusion: A Cleaner, Stronger, More Caring Singapore
41 Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, let me conclude. Public hygiene has always been a priority for the Government, but we must do more following COVID-19. This Bill marks a new milestone to keep Singapore clean by placing greater accountability on premises managers to strengthen public hygiene in their premises.
42 Notwithstanding the focus of the Bill, Members have also spoken passionately and more broadly on a host of other environmental public health related matters, such as pest control, bird nuisance, tray return, smoking and littering. For better focus on the Bill, I will not address them one by one, specifically. These interrelated issues show that public health is multi-faceted and the solutions must also be multi-factorial.
43 This is why all users must play their part if we are to truly move the needle on public hygiene. While the manager can keep his place clean and safe, individuals must take responsibility to maintain good personal hygiene. This is not just about safeguarding public health, but also about building a more gracious society. In properly disposing of our used tissues for example, we help protect our cleaners, many of whom are elderly, from biohazards in their work environment so that they can work safely.
44 Ultimately, public hygiene is a collective responsibility. I ask everyone to work with us to make Singapore a truly clean and liveable home, and instil a national culture of cleanliness. Good public hygiene will help us get over the current pandemic and be better prepared for the next outbreak. We must do our utmost to keep Singapore safer and stronger.