Mr Nicholas Quek (right) believes building a sustainable business starts from treating migrant workers well.
While most work-permit holders in sectors such as construction are typically housed in cramped dormitories, entrepreneur Nicholas Quek houses all 10 of his migrant workers in condominiums or landed houses.
There, the Bangladeshi workers each have a room to themselves or share it with another worker.
This may not make sound business sense. After all, Mr Quek’s manpower costs are higher than those borne by companies of a similar size.
In housing costs alone, he racks up S$400 to S$700 a month per worker, including utilities fees.
But the 32-year-old who runs soundproofing company Noise Plaster believes that treating his workers well and ensuring they have a good quality of life are vital to building a sustainable business.
“(For) sustainable business, respecting the dignity of people is part of it, upholding social justice is part of it,” he said.
Mr Quek, who started the business in 2018, decided to strike out on his own after being an acoustics consultant in the home and professional audio-visual industry between 2011 and 2016.
That stint helped shape his vision for his soundproofing firm, where workers are trained in specific skills and paid competitively. His workers take home an average of S$2,000 to S$2,500 a month.
“If the company wants professional work done, the company should give professional treatment to the workers. A proper professional relationship has to be two-way,” he said.
Mr Quek believes that lower-skilled foreign workers come to Singapore for the same reason that highly skilled expatriates do.
“They just want to have a successful career. Just like anyone else going overseas for a job and leaving their family behind, they are hoping to get a correspondingly higher salary,” he said.
Before his foreign employees become full-time workers, they undergo a one-month traineeship, during which Mr Quek assesses their suitability for long-term employment.
Besides providing the technical skills needed for soundproofing projects, he said that much of the training centres on helping the workers adjust to the culture and demands of Singapore customers.
These cultural adjustments could be as simple as using a fresh plastic sheet to cover the furniture at a customer’s home while they install a soundproof window.
If he does not build a professional work culture, Mr Quek said workers might not be willing to cooperate and meet the standards expected of them.
As they get better at their job, these workers also get salary increments.
Aside from the tangible benefits, workers who stay with the firm are also given skill upgrades. Some of them work independent of Mr Quek’s supervision and are even given the responsibility of working with clients, such as interior designers.
“Once they are given the chance to be authoritative and have bigger responsibilities, I believe that they feel more independent and have greater job satisfaction.”
He stressed, though, that it takes two to tango: “The benefits are given not without condition. We expect professional work with the correspondingly higher salaries as well as welfare.”
Asked if he has seen positive results from building a professional work culture, Mr Quek said that his efforts have borne fruit because he has noticed that customers are willing to pay more for better service.
Mr Quek’s philosophy, however, appears to be an anomaly in the construction sector, which is at times bedevilled by stories of exploitation and deplorable working conditions.
Even so, he believes that treating migrant workers well should be the norm, rather than the exception.
The starting point for young entrepreneurs, he said, is to recognise that there are customers who appreciate higher-quality service and are willing to pay for it.
“Although these workers are foreign and from developing countries, it doesn’t mean we should accept lower standards of service. We should accept higher standards and train them to deliver those standards we want,” he said.
“All good things have to start somewhere and… that begins with bosses and owners.”