Cleaners get wage boost with new law

They will start off with basic pay of $1,000 a month as licensing law takes effect

Efforts to raise the incomes of the lowest-paid workers here received a significant boost yesterday, after a new law requiring cleaning companies to be licensed took effect.

They are now required to pay their cleaners at least $1,000 each month under a compulsory "wage ladder", where cleaners can get higher salaries as they gain better skills. The National Environment Agency (NEA) has issued licences to 1,001 cleaning firms.

With the latest change, cleaners, who are among the lowest paid here, will start off with a basic wage of $1,000 a month, and earn at least $1,600 if they progress to become supervisors.

So far, more than 26,000 local cleaners are on the wage ladder, said the Manpower Ministry, NEA, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) yesterday. All 38,000 local cleaners will be on the wage ladder by September next year.

Firms get a one-year reprieve for contracts signed before April 1 this year. But from September next year, they will have to pay all cleaners accordingly.

Labour chief Lim Swee Say, who visited cleaners at Yuhua housing estate in Jurong and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to mark the start of the mandatory licensing, said the wage ladder will boost cleaners' morale.

"We should no longer look at cleaners as cheap labour... Cleaners also have their career aspirations," said Mr Lim, who is the NTUC secretary-general.

Before the move to make licensing compulsory, the sector was unregulated and the exact number of cleaning firms operating was unknown.

The landmark move also promises to create fairer competition in an industry rife with aggressive price-cutting strategies. Companies were reported to have suppressed wages in a bid to win contracts, which resulted in cleaners' monthly salaries stagnating at around $800 in the past few years, according to official data.

Yesterday, cleaning firms said they look forward to a level playing field where firms cannot undercut others when bidding for new contracts by suppressing their workers' pay. "Everyone has to follow the rule now," said Mr Dennis Tan, general manager of LS 2 Services, which has 750 cleaners.

Mr Milton Ng, president of the Environmental Management Association of Singapore, which represents cleaning firms, said the tight labour market will benefit cleaners.

"If firms don't pay using the progressive wage model, workers will leave them."

Yesterday, the NEA also released official data on the cleaning sector for the first time.

More than 830 cleaning firms are small companies with 50 or fewer cleaners. Only 48 firms have more than 200 cleaners.

In total, the sector hires 52,000 cleaners, of which 38,000, or about two in three, are Singaporeans or permanent residents.

Mr Yeo Yew Meng, 51, who earns $1,800 a month supervising more than 30 cleaners at NTU, hopes to see his pay rise to $2,000.

Said Mr Yeo: "I did not study much when I was young; now I try to attend more courses because it can increase my pay."

tohyc@sph.com.sg