Unions are no longer relevant in Singapore


Oh, and here’s another myth: Singapore has abundant employment regulations.

Both aren’t true. And to illustrate this, I’d like to draw your attention to a few things:

  • We do not have a minimum wage law, but yet almost all our companies pay more than a decent living wage
  • With such a large number of foreigners, the country is still at full employment (we are only at 2% unemployment)
  • It is not cheap to operate a business in Singapore, but yet salaries continue increasing year after year
  • We have not had a single strike since the 80s, but yet Union demands are always being met and expectations exceeded. Union demands in the form of Collective Agreements are documented regularly in the Government Gazette.

There is no law that demands the employer to make certain payment, no law that makes us excessively protectionist…in fact, watch the opposition and NGO groups – they’re actually demanding for more and more regulations to be enacted and enforced.

Now if regulation is thin and unions are quiet – why are employers (whom are traditionally the predators in the economic jungle) so willing to sacrifice profit for the sake of national progress?

Well, they’re probably not.

The unions and the government generally allow the corporations have free play in how they manage their business. But there is a caveat: don’t overstep your boundaries lest you trigger political quakes.

The unions, the government and the employers are like continental plates. They’re floating peacefully with each other…but when they clash, devastation ensues. It is inevitable sometimes that this happens. When the global environment changes, the plates shift a little bit.

Technology, changing employee behaviours, economic conditions, political conditions: these are the forces that are influencing our plate tectonics. Every now and then we feel little tremors…but we have not yet experienced a proper earthquake.

Today, the NTUC charts its directions for the next four years of labour politics in Singapore. Shortly they will be voting their Central Committee. I have sat through their discussions and heard much being said and planned about industrial relations, low wage workers, displaced workers, migrant workers, evolving skills, modern executive needs and so forth.

The Union’s role in Singapore is not small. They may not be militant. They may not be seen to be very vocal. They may not publicly shame their opponents. And it is for these very reasons that there is industrial peace and harmony here and this is precisely what makes Singapore so successful.

“Relevance” has many dimensions. When we ask if our Unions are still relevant, we should not be uptight about why they’re not being more confrontational, aggressive or militant.

The Unions, the government and the employers are not friends. Getting them to be at peace is not natural. There is an invisible glue that keeps (what traditionally are) mortal enemies at peace.

This glue is called: trust.

Should the day come where our unions turn aggressive, it is the dangerous sign that trust has been eroded.

Yes, our Unions are relevant. Relevant to keeping a profitable economic landscape, not just for the businesses, but also for the common man.

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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  • “Problems With the Unemployment Rate

    Because the unemployment rate is measured as a percentage of the labor force, an individual is not technically counted as unemployed if she has gotten frustrated with looking for a job and has given up on trying to find work. These “discouraged workers” would, however, probably take a job if it came along, which implies that the official unemployment rate understates the true rate of unemployment. This phenomenon also leads to counterintuitive situations where the number of employed people and the number of unemployed people can move in the same rather than opposite directions.

    In addition, the official unemployment rate can understate the true unemployment rate because it doesn’t account for people who are underemployed- i.e. working part-time when they would like to be working full-time- or who are working at jobs that are below their skill levels or pay grades. Furthermore, the unemployment rate doesn’t doesn’t report how long individuals have been unemployed, even though duration of unemployment is clearly an important measure.”


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