More than just business: A multi-faceted approach to support the underprivileged and create a more caring society

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated various challenges of those who may have fallen through the cracks but there are ways that businesses can help uplift them.

Although not obvious in everyday modern society, inequality in Singapore remains a very real and pertinent problem. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only widened this gap.

Many of those in the lower echelons of society include individuals engaged in low-wage and unstable forms of work that are unprotected, insecure, or even dangerous. These include jobs in the service, retail or construction sectors or the gig economy, which were greatly affected when the pandemic hit.

While the government reacted swiftly by offering financial assistance through various schemes and support for individuals and businesses to boost recovery and sustain the economy, many people still fell through the cracks. The issue of poverty remains a multi-dimensional one and extends beyond just income as these individuals face issues with finding stable work and being able to afford basic necessities like food and healthcare.

This is where corporates and local community organisations can step up and play a crucial role to help the underprivileged among us.

One such organisation is community development agency Beyond Social Services, which launched a COVID-19 Family Assistance Fund (FAF) in March 2020 to provide temporary financial relief to families affected by the pandemic.

By September 2020, more than S$3 million had been committed to almost 2,000 families across 724 residential blocks in Singapore. Most households received between S$300 to S$800 a month for up to six months.

Work and income disruption

According to a COVID-19 impact study by Beyond Social Services, applicants to the FAF experienced a significant drop in income from work. Median household income from work among FAF applicants fell from S$1,600 to S$500 — a 69% decrease, while median per capita income from work plunged by 74% to S$113. After COVID-19 hit, 35% of applicants even saw their household income dropped to $0.

Common corridor of a rental block in Jalan Bukit Merah

Furthermore, many families were struggling with other forms of insecurity in health, food, and housing. Multinational families faced additional uncertainty over their family members’ legal and employment statuses.

With study and work from home practices, many families also had to grapple with work-care gaps as schools and childcare centres closed. The circuit breaker, which started in April 2020, also highlighted the problems faced by families with many children and who were not equipped for home-based learning. Worsening household indebtedness was another problem faced by those who had arrears in rent, mortgage, and utilities.

Even after the circuit breaker was lifted in June 2020 and the economy gradually reopened, many were still struggling with the impact of the pandemic.

Women from Sew Can We, an income generating initiative by Beyond Social Services, at work.

A comprehensive approach

The challenges that people face are complex and not easily solved by one-stop solutions. For example, someone who has lost her job because of the pandemic, and who is a single parent of two children, will find it challenging to care for them during home-based learning periods while looking and securing new jobs.

Someone in such a situation would benefit from strengthened employment rights and social protection. This ensures that those engaged in low wage, unstable jobs, particularly those in the gig economy, should be fairly paid for their labour and sufficiently protected. For individuals to escape the poverty cycle, they need an adequate wage, job security, fair treatment, and safe and secure working conditions.

Without strong employment conditions as a baseline, it may lead to deeper problems such as increasing housing debt, inability to find new jobs, and access to healthcare.

As incomes decline, rental waivers can be extended or reduced substantially to help lessen the burden for low-income individuals. Another option is to address predatory credit schemes that entrap low-income individuals into debt spirals.

In the ongoing effort to address challenges faced by the underprivileged, a sensitive, multi-dimensional approach is key in managing the complex realities faced by low-income families on different fronts.

While social service agencies work directly with the community, having the partnership of multiple stakeholders across different segments of society such as the public sector, private companies, non-profit organisations or even student volunteers, makes rendering support more effectual and meaningful.

In one of Beyond Social Services’ initiatives, the agency partnered Metro (Singapore) to raise S$250,000 through sales to provide less-privileged students with their own laptops for home-based learning. This helped low-income youths, especially those with many siblings, to continue their lessons at home during the circuit breaker period.

Many corporate partners have also donated generously towards the COVID-19 Financial Assistance Fund to provide support to families over a period of 3 to 6 months. Schroders, one of many valuable contributors during these trying times, made an initial donation of S$87,000 to the fund. Therefore, Schroders raised a further S$110,000 through employee giving, which it then matched dollar-for-dollar.

These actions may seem simple, but corporate partnerships with agencies that understand the needs of those affected have been able to make significant differences in their lives. Although the pandemic may have seen more businesses rallying together to help the community, the problems faced by marginalised groups continue to increase regardless of crisis.

Be it financial or in-kind donations, such support from businesses needs to be an ongoing and collective effort to bring positive, real, and valuable change to the underprivileged. Businesses have the resources and capabilities to do their part to create a better, more caring community for all.

This article was written in partnership with Beyond Social Services and Singapore Business Federation (SBF) Foundation.