If the unions had their way, more low-wage workers would receive a pay hike of at least $60 this year.
During closed-door wage talks with employers in April and May, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) lobbied for the current $1,000 threshold for low-wage workers to be raised, so that more could enjoy a minimum pay increase.
But firms could not be persuaded, said labour chief Lim Swee Say yesterday, in an uncharacteristic disclosure of the tensions that had gone on during the meetings.
His comments came on the heels of the National Wages Council (NWC) recommendations last Friday of a pay hike of at least $60 for workers earning below $1,000 each month. In 2012 and last year, the council recommended minimum pay hikes of $50 and $60 respectively for those earning below $1,000.
These recommendations are not compulsory, but at least half of the firms here implemented them last year.
A higher threshold - Mr Lim revealed that unions were gunning for $1,100 or $1,200 - would have meant more workers qualifying for a minimum pay increase.
Mr Lim, who is NTUC's secretary-general, disclosed that employers had in fact wanted to drop the minimum amount altogether, saying that wages were already going up in the tight labour market.
"We didn't get what we wanted, they didn't get what they wanted, it was a compromise position," the labour chief told reporters on the sidelines of an NTUC event. To avoid a similar deadlock for future wage talks, Mr Lim said that the NTUC, the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) and government officials have formed a committee to work out guidelines on how to increase the pay of low-wage workers.
Details of the new committee were not immediately available, but Mr Lim said that its recommendations will help smoothen the NWC talks in the next three to five years.
Still, despite the hiccup this year, he said that the NTUC is happy that the wages council's efforts to raise low-wage workers' pay have borne fruit, saying that fewer workers earn below $1,000 now.
The Manpower Ministry told The Straits Times yesterday that there were 117,500 local full-time workers earning $1,000 and below last year, down from 150,000 in 2012.
The SNEF declined to comment on Mr Lim's remarks. Its president Stephen Lee would only say in an e-mail that "SNEF supported and endorsed fully the consensus reached by the NWC".
Mr Kurt Wee, the president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises - which was not involved in the wage talks - was more forthcoming on what a higher threshold would have meant for firms.
"Costs will definitely go up," he said.
"I understand that the labour movement always has to fight for workers... but the Government has the responsibility to reduce living costs for people, not just putting pressure on employers to increase wages."
Besides wage guidelines, the labour chief also weighed in on the current debate over the Central Provident Fund (CPF).
In his first comments on the CPF after the national pension fund was criticised online, Mr Lim reiterated a point made by the Government that "CPF money is your money".
"But the question is, do you want to spend that money at the age of 55, at the age of 60 or at the age of 65?"
He added the NTUC wants to encourage workers to keep working, even beyond age 65, so that they have more to retire on.
This article was first published on June 2, 2014.
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