Today marks the opening of NTUC’s Ordinary Delegate’s Conference (ODC). The ODC is a mid-term check and report on how much the Congress has done in the labour environment of Singapore.
Our unions and labour movement works a little differently from our foreign counterparts – this is direct credit to a functional tripartite model. I hope to share snippet of labour issues to let you have an appreciation of the issues, functions and work that they do.
To understand the functions of the labour movement in Singapore, one must have an appreciation of the economic and social landscape we face.
Singapore is in better shape than it was, compared with any point in time in the nation’s history. Better economy, better quality of jobs, better housing, better transportation – generally, better as a whole. Good jobs, good careers and rising salary also brought about a better quality of life.
Would this naturally be a pattern for the future? Would the Singapore of 20 or 50 years later also be in better shape than it does today?
Like the balance of nature, workers and businesses are constantly looking for equilibrium with each other.
Today, there is a labour crunch and it is not business as usual – companies are finding it increasingly painful to continue operating. If the economic landscape shifts because businesses fail, the country risks tipping into recession and rising unemployment will loom. This is a bleak prospect and bodes ill for us all.
But neither do we want a situation where profits are strong for the company, but gains are not shared with workers – that is to say, their wages don’t increase. We know the wage gap is rising and this is not unhealthy for the stability of the country.
(A simple quardrant that explains where the state of labour should be heading)
The surest form of progress is if we see improved gains in four areas: productivity, innovation, profits and ultimately, wages.
The decrease of (cheaper?) labour has led to very interesting productivity projects for many companies. Retailers such as Ikea have turned cashier lines into self-help payment booths. Restaurants are seen implementing tools such as electronic menus and self service table seating systems. Robotics have inched their way into landscaping, housekeeping and have reduced the need for large teams of manpower, making the need for skills to operate these machinery in demand.
(Delegates representing the unions in Singapore)
As a result of productivity led technology, wages have increased. Jobs become more specialised, seeking specific skill sets and as a whole workers benefit.
With the implementation of sector specific lobbying, unions have shifted their bargaining prowess and refined them for better effectiveness. The Progressive Wage is an example of such sector specific work. In a particular industry, for example cleaning, the unions not only put blind pressure on wages, but are better equipped to provide 360 changes to help businesses realise this. It includes education at the client end, better support demanded from the government and even centralising of resources to help the economic environment to better serve each other.
It is in this background that the labour movement presents it’s vision for the continuing work of the labour movement. In a world where unionisation rates are on a decline, the NTUC is upping the ante on its mission to build stronger unions – setting a goal of 1 in 3 workers (as compared to today’s 1 in 5).
Having evolved the businesses of unions from mere bargaining instruments, the movement is breaking new ground into making the jobs of unions more purposeful, solving problems before they happen, lifting wages before the need for bargaining and creating a healthy, functioning tripartite model that other countries can only dream of emulating.
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