Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent

NTUC's CPF proposals: More needs to be done for low-wage workers

The labour movement's proposals on how to improve the Central Provident Fund (CPF) were rightly described as "bold and relevant" by MP Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower.

But the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) could have done more to advocate for low-wage workers.

It presented a laundry list of 15 proposals to tweak the CPF last week. They ranged from introducing financial counselling to raising the cap on the salary amount on which CPF contributions are calculated. Currently salaries above $5,000 a month do not attract CPF contributions.

It even included suggestions on Workfare and raising the CPF contribution rates of older workers, areas which are outside the mandate of a government-appointed panel reviewing the CPF system.

The panel is expected to release its report early next month, and NTUC was giving its views ahead of the report.

NTUC deserves credit for three proposals.

The boldest proposal is to allow CPF members to partially withdraw their savings in a lump sum at the CPF drawdown age (which is 65 for those born in 1954 and after) even if they have not met the Minimum Sum that needs to be set aside for retirement at age 55. The drawdown age is when CPF members start receiving monthly payouts from their CPF balance.

The NTUC wants CPF members to be able to withdraw at least 20 per cent of their retirement savings in the CPF at 65.

That goes beyond what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said when he first mooted the idea last August. Mr Lee had suggested letting people withdraw up to 20 per cent of their CPF balances when they retire.

The second notable suggestion is to give higher interest rates for CPF savings. CPF members now get an extra 1 percentage point interest for the first $60,000 of their savings. NTUC wants that amount doubled to $120,000, which means putting as much as $600 more into the savings of CPF members each year.

NTUC also deserves credit for including freelance workers, the self-employed and even housewives in its recommendations. It has a raft of ideas on how to help them, from giving government top-ups to those who make voluntary contributions to easing restrictions so that more people can enjoy tax relief from topping up the CPF accounts of their spouses and family members.

Taken together, these suggestions, if accepted by the Government, will expand the CPF system to cover more people and boost their savings.

But the NTUC's proposals also raise eyebrows in other ways.

There are more proposals favouring middle- and higher-income earners than lower wage workers. Take for instance the suggestion to give the extra 1 percentage point interest to CPF savings above $60,000. The move will benefit middle- and higher-income earners who have larger CPF savings.

To help lower income earners boost their CPF balances, it would have been more logical to give higher interest to those with smaller savings.

Another example is raising the monthly CPF cap of $5,000 from which contributions are calculated. This only benefits those earning above that sum.

Providing more tax relief for those who top up the CPF accounts of their family members will similarly only benefit those who earn enough to pay income taxes in the first place. These workers are in the minority.

NTUC had fewer ideas for low-wage workers. One is to raise the wage band for workers receiving the maximum Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) payouts from $1,000 to $1,200 a month.

More importantly, NTUC failed to address the elephant in the room - that people are not saving enough for retirement.

Only half of CPF members who turned 55 in 2013 met the Minimum Sum, including 15 per cent who pledged their properties.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan said: "I find the recommendations do not go far enough. The recommendations only address the symptoms but do not engage purposefully with the all-important question of why retirement adequacy is seemingly unattainable."

To be fair, the NTUC was merely gathering the views of workers and union leaders, and it had tailored its proposals to focus on areas the government panel is looking at.

And while the panel is reviewing the retirement adequacy of the CPF Minimum Sum, it was not asked to look into helping those who have not saved enough.

Yet this issue of how to help low-wage workers build up their CPF savings in the first place is of vital importance. This can be done either by raising wages; raising the long-term CPF contribution rates; or raising the CPF interest rate.

The first two require tripartite collaboration. With NTUC's political heft and its strong three-way partnership with employers and the Government, it can take the lead to advocate more on this issue and prod the Government to do more to help raise CPF balances of low-wage workers. Otherwise this gap will become an abyss from which low-wage workers cannot climb out as they age.

NTUC is the voice of workers.

Helping low-wage workers boost their CPF savings must surely be front and centre of their advocacy and policy proposals on behalf of this group.