Trade Unions 101: Insights and Understanding

social resilience
  • This is a one week series about my thoughts on unions
  • What is a trade union and what are its origins?
  • Why are some professions unionised while others aren’t?
  • How have unions evolved along with our changing workforce?

Amidst the SMRT saga that unfolded couple of weeks back, it got me thinking about a strike initiated by the Teacher’s Union when I was on an exchange programme in a foreign university. Of course it was something of a novelty then since strikes were virtually unheard of back in Singapore, and well, let’s just say we were happy to get  a couple of days off school to travel when that happened.


In fact the first time I actually came across the concept of a union was during an Employee Relations course I took while on exchange – something that my classmates seemed to be very passionate about!


According to the Trade Unions Act, a trade union is defined as any association or combination of workmen or employers, whether temporary or permanent, whose principal objective is to regulate relations between workmen and employers for all or any of the following purposes:

  • To promote good industrial relations between workmen and employers;
  • To improve the working conditions of workmen or enhance their economic and social status; or
  • To achieve the raising of productivity for the benefit of workmen, employers and the economy of Singapore.


I thought it might be interesting to share a couple of interesting pieces of information I came across when finding out more about unions in Singapore –


  • The concept of unions originated in Europe and increased in popularity during the Industrial Revolution period when the employers wielded majority of the power, which led to occurrences where they underpaid and mistreated their workers.  According to the World Federation of Trade Unions, the first labour union was formed in 1790 (that’s more than 200 years ago!). Closer to home, the first trade union to be registered in Singapore is the Singapore Port Workers Union, on 18 October 1946.


  • While it used to be that trade unions were largely organised by blue-collar workers who lacked the power to promote their rights and needed a collective voice to speak on their behalf, this idea has evolved substantially over time. Taking a look at the employee trade unions in Singapore, I noticed that they span across various levels of professions, expertise and sectors; from airline pilots, construction, healthcare services to educational institutes and the media!


  • Doesn’t it puzzle you why some professions are unionised while others aren’t? Initially, I thought there were restrictions around the formation of unions in certain sectors (particularly those related to public services – the likes of transportation and electricity), but the Constitution guarantees the right to join and form trade unions, although this is subjected to limitations imposed by the Singapore Parliament on grounds of security, public order or morality.


  • However, unions need to be registered under the Trade Unions Act in order to enjoy any of the rights, immunities or privileges of a registered trade union. Also, under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, there are certain restrictions on strikes and lock-outs:
    • Those employed in the water, gas and electricity services are restricted to go on strike.
    • Other essential services must provide a notice of intention to strike at least 14 days before striking. The full list is available here if you’re interested to read more!


  • While trade union membership worldwide is facing a general decrease in participation due to factors like shift in employment (from blue-collar manufactured goods to white-collar services), better management practices and increasing substitution by government for the services and benefits traditionally provided by unions, the situation has been slightly different in Singapore. For example, NTUC has seen its membership increasing steadily over the past years, which could be attributed to the successful use of non-collective bargaining benefits to attract workers. This includes subsidies and scholarships for training programmes, childcare and medical rebates as well as lifestyle and entertainment benefits.


It is remarkable to see how trade unions and its related laws have evolved throughout the years, in tandem with the changing employment landscape in Singapore – from an unskilled, male dominated workforce heavily dependent on manufacturing, to an educated, skilled working pool with balanced participation and a strong focus on services.


Most certainly though, it would be interesting to see how these will continue transforming moving ahead, in coping with issues related to increasing foreign labour and the challenges resulting from the ease of cross-border movement of labour resources!

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