Singapore’s labour movement –Yay or nay?

social resilience


  •  This is a one week series about my thoughts on unions
  • Is Singapore’s labour movement still operating against the same principles today as it had when it was first formed?
  • Should Singaporeans expect preferential treatment over FTs and foreign skilled workers?

In the broadest sense, the labour movement is generally about a union of workers championing better working conditions and fair treatment from employers. Different countries interpret and implement labour-related policies differently, and Singapore’s cooperative approach has had its fair share of criticism.


Singapore’s labour movement had chosen to adopt a cooperative style rather than a confrontational approach, in which a tripartite alliance exists to drive economic and social development. The government passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act of 1968, which severely limited workers’ rights to strike (something the unions had given up to serve national interests). Singapore was a small economy then with no natural resources (after getting booted out of Malaysia). All the nation had was its citizens. The unions had only two options really: join hands with the government and employers and work towards a common goal, or challenge the system and risk the health of the already vulnerable economy. The unions made the choice to give up their rights to strike because they felt that the only way to create job opportunities was through economic growth.


That was about four decades ago. What about the relevance of the labour movement today? What should a union aim to achieve for its workers in today’s context? Have the fundamentals changed?


Singapore unions lacking bite?


We’re all well aware that the NTUC represents the Singapore labour movement in a tripartite partnership with MOM and The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). As the name NTUC increasingly sounds like a consumer brand than a pro-worker entity, are we, as Singaporeans, fully aware if our labour movement is effectively addressing the core objective it had originally set out to do?

The recent illegal strike by SMRT’s Chinese bus drivers is an unfortunate incident which could have been avoided had SMRT collaborated with the union the way SBS Transit has done. This, coupled with the fact that most foreign workers are not privy to their rights to join a union, may have led to this debacle.


Only following the strike had the labour movement announced the launch of a two-week recruitment campaign to encourage drivers to join the union. Seems like a rather reactive move given what could have been avoided, but considerably timely if it buys SMRT’s involvement (finally!). I guess better late than never?


Nevertheless, NTUC’s outreach to the foreign bus drivers after the incident outlines the importance of having a union advocate workers’ rights in line with employers’ business priorities. Rightfully, in my opinion, the union shouldn’t seek to prescribe solutions, rather to contribute towards achieving the bigger goal of creating a happier and fulfilled workforce, and increase employee productivity so that employers continue to be competitive and the economy stays strong.


Singaporeans over foreigners, or level playing field for all?


Time and again we’ve heard from former MM and PM that Singapore cannot do without foreign talent. That’s a fair (though discomforting) statement to make. But understandably, this is when we would expect NTUC to step in and put a stop to letting FTs fill jobs that Singaporeans can perform.


However, in retrospect, what many do not realise is that unions are supposed to speak up for those who work IN Singapore, and not just Singaporeans. This is because foreigners are also contributing to the Singapore economy and they are not exempted from paying tax. Moreover, NTUC’s ‘Singaporeans First’ employment strategy and call to the government to tighten foreign worker policies are healthy signs that our labour movement stands by Singaporeans despite a domestic talent crunch.


We expect our labour movement to ‘protect’ us by giving preferential treatment to those born and bred in Singapore, but is that a fair expectation in the larger scheme of things?


I applaud that our labour movement is providing employment and training, but more importantly, I’d like to know how NTUC is working with the government and employers to ensure that there are no hiring discrepancies in cases where a low-priced talent is valued over real talent – something which I’m sure is a work-in-progress and constant battle.


Having spoken to a close friend who works in HR, there’s an unwarranted concern of foreign talent being chosen over Singaporeans. Companies that flourish are companies that understand the value of productivity over cost, and more often than not, it boils down to the individual skills. If anything, hiring a foreign talent can be more costly as relocation costs need to be absorbed by the company.


We should not be looking at the labour movement to make magic happen considering the whole purpose of a tripartite is to take into account the development of the nation as a whole. But underlying these national duties, we should also learn to understand our own rights and take ownership of our own battles. And by that, I meant doing it the right way and through the proper channels. There’s always more that our labour movement can do for individuals, but it takes two to tango.


More yay for our labour movement, perhaps?

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