Singapore sets basic wage of S$1,000 for cleaners

Singapore, SINGAPORE: A cleaner (C) pushes his trolley along the pavement in Singapore, 31 July 2006. AFP PHOTO/ ROSLAN RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Singapore’s government on Wednesday moved to set an entry-level minimum wage of S$1,000 for its cleaners.

Deputy Prime and Finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced this in a speech at a best sourcing symposium on Wednesday morning, saying it will mandate an up-to-20 per cent increment in the entry-level wages for cleaners.

DPM Tharman noted that the 55,000 cleaners in the country’s resident workforce earn a median gross wage of $850 per month on average.

“Not only is that low pay, but most cleaners have also not enjoyed the real wage growth seen among workers nationally, including other low-income Singaporeans, in the last five years,” he said, in what some labour activists are seeing as a significant step from previous positions the government has taken against stating a minimum wage.

Progressive wage model

The way the government will do this, said DPM Tharman, is to require all cleaning businesses to be licensed. One of the requirements in this licence will be that cleaners are paid a minimum of $1,000 a month, as determined under the government’s progressive wage model.

When cleaners upgrade their skills, for instance, learn how to use motorised ride-on equipment like sweepers or steam cleaners, they will command higher wages, say $1,400 a month. Should they step up to a supervisory role, a cleaner can earn even more, say $1,600 a month, said DPM Tharman.

Companies here will have until September to comply to these licensing conditions under the government’s new licensing regime, which will be tabled in Parliament later this month, he added.

“Once the Act is passed, we will take non-compliance seriously,” he said. “There will be penalties imposed on companies that fail to comply with the licensing conditions… (companies that flout the wage requirement) may have their licenses suspended or revoked. In addition, service buyers procuring from non-licensed cleaning companies will also face penalties under the law.”

A similar requirement for standard starting pay and progressive wage model is being worked out for the security industry as well, said DPM Tharman, noting that issues of low basic wages and long overtime hours is rife there too.

He stressed, though, that these required minimum wages are not a national minimum wage, saying that they have been specifically targeted due to the prevalence of cheap-sourcing tactics that have depressed workers’ wages in both industries. He also clarified that the government was not moving to set a base wage “by political decree”, but wages that are “determined through tripartite negotiations”.

“The tripartite approach… is important. It reduces the risk that workers, especially our older and more vulnerable workers, will lose their jobs as wages go up,” he said.  “While we have made some progress in helping our low-wage workers, we are doing more and must."

A significant step?

Responding to the announcement, labour activist Jolovan Wham told Yahoo Singapore he sees this as a “significant step”.

“I think it’s a good first step, but this should pave the way for legislation to be enacted eventually,” he said, adding that such a basic wage should apply to sectors like construction, marine and services, for instance, and also apply to workers of all nationalities — the rule, according to DPM Tharman, currently applies only to "resident" cleaners.

“To ensure that locals are hired, and are not displaced, it is important that migrant workers are not easy to exploit,” Wham said. “Or else, they will always be preferred to locals. The principle of equal pay for equal work needs to be upheld.”

He also asked if the authorities could explain how the figure of $1,000 was decided upon, questioning if it is sufficient for low-waged workers given the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Wham, who leads civil society group Workfair Singapore, said there should also be mechanisms for workers to file complaints when their employers do not pay them the stipulated minimum wage. At the same time, provisions need to be in place to protect workers from wrongful dismissals, or else they may be afraid of filing complaints, he said.

“Audits will need to be carried out to ensure compliance, otherwise the requirement to pay the stipulated minimum wage will not have any teeth,” he added.