THE National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has set a target to raise the salaries of low-wage cleaners: It wants 10,000 cleaners to earn wages of at least $1,000 a month by 2015.

This is slightly more than one-fifth the number of local cleaners, the majority of whom are earning less than $1,000 every month. There are about 69,000 cleaners in Singapore.

The way the labour union will accomplish this is through their employers - by subsidising operating costs that will in turn raise company productivity. This might include, for example, the purchase of more efficient cleaning equipment. The companies then share their productive savings by raising the pay of its cleaners.

Called the progressive wage concept, the initiative is the latest in a series of coordinated plans by the Government and labour movement to improve the lot of Singapore's cleaners.

Under the concept, wages will be gradually scaled up. For those already earning $1,000, their salaries may be raised to $1,200.

Cleaners who operate specialised machinery, such as scrubbers, may have their incomes bumped up to $1,500.

The progressive wage concept was introduced yesterday at a cleaning industry forum by labour chief Lim Swee Say, who said the move would help dispel the notion that cleaning jobs were 'dead-end jobs'.

Cleaners can look forward to systematically upgrading their skills in order to earn higher pay, Mr Lim said.

To attract more companies to take part in the initiative, NTUC also said yesterday it would do more to subsidise cleaning firms.

At the forum held at the Employment and Employability Institute at Redhill yesterday, it presented to 70 representatives from cleaning companies, industry associations and town councils examples of cleaning equipment where it said it would foot half the bill.

The funds will come from NTUC's Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) launched in 2010 to encourage companies to improve their productivity levels.

The programme received a boost in May when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that the Government would pump another $70 million into the scheme.

Since the IGP was launched, it has spent about $30 million. Of the more than 400 companies which tapped into the programme, there were only 28 cleaning companies, out of more than 900 in Singapore. Using the IGP's funds, the 28 firms raised the incomes of some 600 cleaners.

During the Budget Debate in February, Mr Tharman singled out cleaners as an example of low-income Singaporeans who had not seen their salaries go up in the past five years.

Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said in Parliament last month that cleaning companies accredited by the National Environment Agency will soon be required to pay 'appropriate wages' to their workers who have undergone training.

Last month, the National Wages Council accepted an NTUC proposal to give a $50 pay hike to workers earning less than $1,000 - including cleaners.

NTUC's announcement yesterday was cautiously welcomed by cleaning companies.

Ms Sharon Kee, project director of Horsburgh Engineering, a cleaning company with less than 100 cleaners, said that buyers' attitude is key.

'It ultimately depends on whether NTUC can persuade cleaning service buyers to pay more,' she said.

Mr Woon Chiap Chan, managing director of ISS Facility Services, which has 6,000 cleaners on its payroll, agreed. He now pays his cleaners at least $850 each month, and said he was prepared to raise the pay when there are productivity gains.

Mr Woon added, however, that it was possible the initiative would not work if cleaning service buyers are not prepared to pay more to cleaning companies that are productive.

Cleaning firms may then continue to suppress their workers' salaries - in spite of productivity savings - if they think raising their wages would make them less competitive in a contract market where the lowest price usually wins.

This, in turn, would discourage companies from improving productivity, Mr Woon said, adding: 'This is my biggest fear.'

School cleaner Tan Ngin Choon was also sceptical.

The 58-year-old works nine hours a day, five days a week for a basic pay of $770. Although she is now learning to use a burnishing machine that cleans and polishes floors, she is unsure whether her boss will increase her pay after she masters the equipment.

'I don't have much education and I am grateful for this job, so I depend on my boss,' she said.