I used to think that Singapore only has one union called the NTUC. and “tripartism” means our NTUC don’t cause trouble, smile smile at events, and run NTUC Fairprice, Income etc. But in the more recent past, my work has crossed paths with many unions. They call it the Labour Movement in Singapore. And after 3 years, this is what I gather of unions.
Unions as a form of social activism
There are many unions in Singapore, big and small. I see unions as a form a social activism. How they form is actually quite simple – a group of unhappy workers group together for protection of their ricebowls, and demand a better deal from the company – there, you have yourself a union. Unions are activists for the interests of who they represent.
Unions traditionally conduct activities that cause employers to suffer in their business operations, such as strikes, “working slower”, and other tactics. These serve to demonstrate that the unhappy worker group has the power to impact profit. It gives them power to force employers to relent to worker demands, such as better remuneration, treatment, work conditions etc.
But carried out too often, or when unions are so powerful they demand too much for a company to manage, workers will eventually lose their jobs when the company cannot sustain. Which defeats the purpose of a union.
On the flipside, if the union is weak, small in numbers, they cannot bargain for changes. Workers may leave, morale could be low, and they are not motivated to work for the good of the company. The company eventually cannot sustain too.
Ultimately, employers and unions share a common destiny – when one dies, the other cannot survive. So unions can also champion employers’ interests, if the interests are aligned with the workers they represent.
A bit of history of Singapore’s unions
In Singapore, we have the famous “Tripartite” partnership where peaceful negotiations between employers and unions are encouraged. They sign collective agreements that both parties agree on, with Government acting like a mediator. Government also gives resources or set policies that can either strengthen the employers and or the workers, so that both can continue to have a balance of power.
NTUC is a congress set up to act as a coordinator of unions that are affiliated under its umbrella, because numbers is strength. Unions that are under the NTUC’s umbrella has free-choice of affiliation, and are independent entities on their own.
Over time, NTUC and the unions grew, and with better resources and better coordination, NTUC started social enterprises like Fairprice, Income, First Campus etc, to continue and expand their social cause.
They went many steps further to meet the lifestyle aspirations of people with credit card tie-ups etc. They formed a youth wing, to also take care of the needs of a young workforce. They set-up the Employment & Employability Institute to look into skills development and life-long employability.
Inertia of the people
The growth of NTUC and the union network has hit a snag. People today are questioning the continued relevance of the network they’ve built over the years, and the relationships painstakingly preserved and nurtured. They say the Labour Movement has lost sight of its core purpose and no longer relevant to them.
But are they right?
I recently encountered a group of professionals, who are very passionate about their profession, their expertise.
They complain incessantly about how the industry standards have fallen, complain that Government is not interested to develop or recognize their craft, and complain that procurement methods today don’t pay a premium for their craft.
Basically much like how the unions of old-times – they want a better deal for their profession, so that they can also do well as a professional.
But when being engaged to form a group to champion this cause, offered all kinds of support, they turn cynical and give up at the first instance of set-back. And it was as simple as not getting funding to fly someone in to speak on a topic they claim to be passionate about.
They talk and talk, complain and complain. But when asked to actually DO something, they run away, blaming everyone else for not giving them support … End of the day, they are an empty vessel. Do you only do something when everything is to your liking, or do you just do something because you believe in it.
I agree that as globalization brings new impact on workers and businesses, together with the change in workforce mix to more Professionals, Managers, Executives (PMEs), the traditional approach of unionization needs a re-think.
The PMEs didn’t use to need unions – they are the management levels. But today, PMEs have their own unhappiness too. The group of professionals I mentioned above are a good example. But someone within themselves need to stand-up and make a change. They need to want to lead their fellow professionals, rally them, and form a credible voice on their own.
Put very simply, unions exist because people group together to gather strength. They can ride onto the existing network of the Labour Movement, to tap on the resource of economies of scale, or they can also choose to do it on their own.
The key thing is how can we find people who believe in it enough to do it? It has to start from grounds-up.
What I think is future of unions
In a knowledge economy that could be moving towards an “ideas” economy, it may mean protecting my brain, making sure it can be creative and “good” enough to earn a living in the global market.
Translating into tangibles, I would want opportunities to be exposed to areas of work with varying degrees of complexities. I would want to have my expertise or “brainwork” recognised and paid a premium, whether I’m inside companies through proper appraisal systems, or with external clients through good procurement practices.
I would want to continually sharpen my mind and exchange ideas with thought-leaders, and receive proper training so that I can cope with an increasingly competitive global workplace.
What do you think … Start a union with me to fight for these?