About 32,000 workers in Singapore take home less than the Workers' Party's (WP) proposed minimum wage of $1,300, NTUC deputy secretary-general Koh Poh Koon told the House. This drew a response from WP MPs, who said its introduction should then not hurt businesses or workers.
Dr Koh had cited the figure to explain that a minimum wage was not necessary. He said the Government's policies, particularly the progressive wage model (PWM) and Workfare Income Supplement, already ensure the majority of low-wage workers take home more than $1,300 a month.
Among the 850,000 workers in occupations traditionally deemed lower income, such as clerical support and service staff and tradesmen, about 100,000 earn below $1,300, figures from the Ministry of Manpower show.
After taking into account Workfare wage top-ups and employers' Central Provident Fund contribution, about 56,000 earn less than $1,300. Of these, about 32,000 are full-time employees, or 1.7 per cent of the workforce, a "very small number", said Dr Koh.
Noting this, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said there should then be no difficulty in ensuring that all Singaporeans are paid a liveable wage. He added he was prepared to work with the Government to make it happen in "double-quick time", as it was unacceptable for any Singaporean to be earning below $1,300.
Dr Koh had suggested that introducing a minimum wage now was inconsistent with what WP MPs have said about helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) amid the recession, and would be akin to adding "more frost to the snow in companies that are in deep winter right now".
Mr Edward Chia (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC), a co-founder of Timbre Group, said firms facing cost pressures could replace workers with technology, with "low-wage becoming no-wage".
But Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) questioned how a minimum wage would hurt SMEs, given that the Government believes 32,000 to be a small number. He added that many business owners have expressed that they "want to pay their employees with dignity".
He asked how long it would take to roll out the PWM to all sectors.
Dr Koh said the process would start now, but when it would kick in would depend on the economic situation. The Government is not ideologically against a minimum wage, he said, adding that the PWM is effectively one tied to a skills ladder, which takes a different approach to lifting wages.
He also said that although it now covers only the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, the PWM has helped lift wages in other sectors. Dr Koh pointed to the new work group on expanding the PWM, saying this would further reduce the 32,000 figure.
Mr Singh said his recent Facebook post on the issue was not to dismiss the PWM model, but to nudge the Government to move faster on those low-wage workers at the lower end of the spectrum.