Who says unions have no teeth?

social resilience


“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Sun Tzu

When we talk about salaries, pay packages and cost of living, you would have read that the NTUC and its affiliated unions accused for being organizations without voice and bite. On the disagreeing end of the spectrum include individuals such as Kirsten Han and Gilbert Goh, whom quite frequently shoot at the labour movement for “having no teeth”.

Kirsten Han asserted that the sense she got from talking about unions to Singaporeans was that the NTUC has not truly represented the ordinary worker. Gilbert Goh on the other hand, said: “If you can’t represent and speak up properly for the workers you clearly fail as a union.”


To them, “fighting for worker’s rights” mean striking, accusing and bringing militant type bargaining to the employer’s table. To show the world that the activist was “doing something”.

I think these styles are dated and ineffective. Why use aggression when the outcome you want is the worker’s victory?


A silent uphill battle

Some of these netizens are misinformed. Negotiation for worker’s salary and benefit is a long and arduous activity. The work takes the form of long discussions, debate and negotiations often happening behind closed doors, to preserve the “face” of the employer.

The result of these negotiations is the signing of a Collective Agreement: the document which sets out the terms and conditions of employment for all bargainable employees of a company, giving effect to actual progress.

This type of work isn’t rare either – go and flip the Government Gazette and you’ll find agreements to negotiations taking place and given power all day long.

It isn’t just about just raising salaries. Unions are also in the business of ensuring workers get fair retrenchment benefits and treatment, in the event of a layoff. On top of that, the Labour Movement’s manpower development arm, the e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) helps retrain the workers and assist in their job search.




An all-out battle for workers

Gilbert Goh goes on to accuse workers as having nowhere to turn to for arbitration as “biased unions continue to side with the employers during any labour dispute.”

This is untrue. On numerous occasions, NTUC’s affiliated unions have brought employers to the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) to settle labour disputes. Arbitration is the labour movement’s alternative to striking and done with better success.

Although still an unpleasant outcome, this action of last resort works. It achieves the preservation of industrial harmony. Pre-arbitration, there is still opportunity to discover the best possible outcome for the affected employees before the judge comes along to make a decision.



The Whole Gamut

When we say “labour movement”, we’re not talking about salaries. There are many, many issues that surround workers. Young workers, working women, growing number of PMEs, changing employment landscape and low wage workers to name a few.

To achieve all this, we need a sustainable ecosystem. This ecosystem is called the co-operation of government, businesses and unions – tripartism.

Thanks to a working tripartite system, Singapore has enjoyed harmonious workplace relations where the wages of workers have risen in the past five years. And this is fact – the median income (including employer CPF contributions) of full-time employed residents rose by 29% in 2014.

Do you think this can be accomplished if the NTUC had bared their so-called “teeth”? Doesn’t all these count towards ensuring the stability of the economy of Singapore and the union being an effective voice for the workers?

What we need are organizations who take a 360 degree outlook for the worker, and not just to win the myopic, short-term battle on wages…and lose the war on employment.











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