Don’t forget what’s important

With all the exciting wage-related news happening in our little red dot lately, I figured I’d take another look at tripartism and maybe rethink my position on it.

For a long time I felt the term was little more than a neat political catchphrase, something politicians threw around to make it seem like they were working hard to defend our interests against greedy employers.

But as I’ve grown and stepped into the world of salaries, benefits, employers, and HR policies, I’ve also noticed that some real benefits do stem from all the work put into tripartite initiatives, particularly in the field of wage guidelines and low wage workers.

According to Wikipedia, tripartism is “economic corporatism based on tripartite contracts of business, labour, and state affiliations within the economy. Each is to act as a social partner to create economic policy through cooperation, consultation, negotiation, and compromise.”

I really like the sound of that – economic policy that reflects social compromise. Certainly, tripartism as a socio-political ideal is an excellent one.

Tripartism has been popular in Europe since the early 1900s (post-WWI), but its origin dates back to 1890 at the Paris Peace Conference. In 1919, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) was founded and tripartism institutionalised as a form of industrial relation regulation.

Since then, ILO has overseen international labour standards in tripartite fashion, uniting representatives of states, employers and workers in the enactment of labour policies.

In Singapore, tripartism was birthed amid social unrest in the 60s. The pre-industrialisation era was marked by low employment rates and deplorable working conditions – things that thankfully were at the top of the agenda when the new government was born in 1965.

The idea was to leave adversarial unionism behind and move towards industrial peace and harmonious justice in a way that would mutually benefit all parties. This was necessary for attracting and sustaining foreign investment and job creation.

Tripartism in Singapore essentially relies on several implicit and vital elements – consultation (i.e. dialogue), cohesion, trust, and equal strength. An equilateral triangle might sum this tripartite power distribution most aptly; a lopsided triangle certainly wouldn’t stand the test of time.

So, in Singapore, the government is presented by MOM (Ministry of Manpower), the workers are represented by NTUC (The National Trades Union Congress) and the employers by SNEF (The Singapore National Employers Federation).

The MOM oversees employment matters and represents the state’s law and governance while the Labour Movement takes care of unionised workers and addresses issues like employability, growth, and social responsibility. SNEF, meanwhile, advocates best employment practices for the sake of improving productivity and competitiveness across industries.

Together, the three strive towards industrial harmony and national growth in a global economy.

Some notable tripartite actions include the National Wages Council (which has existed since 1972), and more commendable new-millennia initiatives like the Committee on Work-Life Strategy (2000), the Committee on Employability of Older Workers (2005), the Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (2006), the Panel on Community Engagement at Workplaces (2006), the Workgroup on Enhancing Employment Choices for Women (2007), and the Committee for Low-wage Workers and Inclusive Growth (2010).

The Singapore Tripartism Forum was launched in January 2007 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a platform for discussion within a structured framework. This forum gives all three partners specific opportunity to air their concerns in open consultation while fostering the spirit of tripartism.

That’s why I find it quite unfair when people complain about the government’s “unwillingness to listen to people”. First, the government is in charge of A LOT of things, so obviously it can’t address every single individual complaint. Second, even if it could, solving someone’s problem could create another problem for someone else.

It’s no surprise that social dialogue is one of the ILO’s central principles:

“Social dialogue and the practice of tripartism between governments and the representative organizations of workers and employers within and across borders are now more relevant to achieving solutions and to building up social cohesion and the rule of law through, among other means, international labour standards.”

As far as I can see, tripartism in Singapore is doing just that!

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Vince Chen

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