CLEANING companies will soon come under a new licensing scheme that requires them to pay cleaners tiered wages according to the type of cleaning jobs they do.

This scheme was given the nod by Parliament yesterday when it passed the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill.

The wage scales, however, are to be decided by a separate tripartite committee of employers, unionists and government officials.

As a result, some MPs expressed concern yesterday on how the panel would draw up the wages for the different cleaning jobs.

Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) asked if their pay could be set "with reference to objective criteria such as the minimum living level and inflation rate, with automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living".

Workers' Party Nominated MP Gerald Giam also asked for the tripartite committee to publish the basis for its decisions.

Replying, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said he would not compel the panel to publish how it came to the wage recommendations.

"In the spirit of not being overly intrusive... I do not want to prescribe that."

Earlier, in presenting the Bill for debate, he described the scheme as a "very major move to institutionalise progressive wages through licensing".

"It was not a step which this Government embarks on lightly," said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that the Government was careful not to micromanage the sector or add to companies' costs.

He also stressed that the licensing move is different from setting a national minimum wage, saying it was a targeted measure to lift the persistently low wages of cleaners. Also, the wage ladder was negotiated and not "set by political decree".

He credited the wage ladder to the National Trades Union Congress.

Dr Balakrishnan also said "no" to Ms Ng's call to raise the pay of foreign cleaners.

"They come on agreed terms and there's no reason for us to insist that those terms be exactly identical to the terms of employment and to the wages of local Singaporeans."

Labour MP Zainal Sapari, who was among seven members of the House to speak on the Bill, asked if cleaning companies could be allowed to get out of existing contracts without penalties if they cannot renegotiate their contracts to take into account the higher salaries.

Workers' Party's Mr Png Eng Huat (Hougang) was concerned that the requirement to train all workers would be a burden on the cleaning companies.

Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government has tried to strike the right balance: "You don't want to squeeze employers so hard the whole business collapses."

The new licensing scheme is expected to be implemented later this year.