What we can learn from recent labour disputes overseas

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Travelling to South Korea soon? You just might get to have a glimpse of their recent labour strikes…and probably even experience what its like to have your life disrupted by militant unions and their industrial action.

According to trade union groups, more than 200,000 union workers have rallied in central Seoul in response to a nationwide general strike call against the South Korean government’s labour reforms.

Curiously, the workers assert they are not striking to demand higher wages or better working conditions. What they are demanding for is that the Government halts plans to overhaul the country’s labour market, which they say will benefit only the employers in dealing with labour issues.

South Korea isn’t the only one striking.

Of late, Lufthansa was another company to experience industrial action. It was apparently the longest strike in Lufthansa’s history and has made news for all the wrong reasons [1]. A massive airline company could be brought to its knees because of a combative union. However, is that the fundamental reason why the strikes happened?

For far too long, many legacy European carriers lagged behind the Middle Eastern airlines at offering connectivity. Moreover, the Middle Eastern airlines learnt how to make use of a low cost structure, their geographical advantage and strategy to extend their reach worldwide.

Aviation analysts would suggest that the Middle Eastern airlines simply outdid their competitors so well that their competitors were greatly affected by their business models. Air France employees went on strike just like Lufthansa. Delta Airlines embarked on a destructive PR campaign painting the Gulf carriers as sinister, state-subsidised airlines competing on an unfair footing. However, no one is concerned about these when livelihoods are affected.

Closer to home and closer to our hearts is something analogous: a new business model threatens the way of the old in the form of Uber. Uber allows for flexi-work schemes, a better technological infrastructure and lean management, outdoing legacy companies in the process. One would then think that taxi drivers should go on strike just as in the Lufthansa case; their livelihoods are clearly affected.

Uber Technologies Inc. signage stands inside the company's office prior to Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, speaking in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 24, 2014. Rubio addressed the need to adapt antiquated government regulations to increase economic opportunities for the 21st century and outdated regulations limit consumer choice. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg ORG XMIT: 480784803
Uber Technologies Inc. signage stands inside the company’s office prior to Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, speaking in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 24, 2014. Rubio addressed the need to adapt antiquated government regulations to increase economic opportunities for the 21st century and outdated regulations limit consumer choice. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg ORG XMIT: 480784803

Innovation cannot be halted; halting innovation simply means stopping of improvements to the way businesses operate. The phrase “disruptive technologies” is simply another way to describe “innovation”, be it through a new business model, a killer app or a new way of thinking. Both companies and unions must realise that they are battling the same issues: being able to keep relevance with the changing times.

The fact that many unions choose to go on strike suggests either a union that is lazy (asking for wage increases is the most direct way of buffering workers anyway) or a union that is incompetent (if the job is gone, no amount of wage will help the worker). Disruptive technologies can be adapted to and learnt. The responsibility of the company today, I think should be moving the business whereas the unions can help to pick up the slack and retrain the workers of today for the future.

One would have thought that unions and companies would have learnt better. The sweeping changes in the music and print industries should be a harbinger of further changes. Besides, with the slowing economy, companies are forced to think along the lines of being more productive, efficient and maintaining as slim a workforce as possible. This hints at workers losing their jobs because they do not have either the skill set or ability to keep up with the job.

Not all taxi drivers can understand apps, however, some may contend. An app that is “too smart” may be unusable. Perhaps unions and their extensive manpower networks could step in to provide courses for taxi drivers, sharpening their skills in the new tech arena. Have dialogues to collaborate in app development. Foster fruitful communication among the different stakeholders to craft a solution more useful than Uber.

What South Korea, Lufthansa and Uber shows us… is that primitive forms of industrial action is outdated. It seldom gets things done. In our modern world, where policies and technology change so fast, we’ll need better co-operation amongst all the stakeholders.

About the author

Donavan Cheah

Donavan is currently a Physics student at the National University of Singapore. Besides Physics, he enjoys commenting on issues ranging from education, public policy and even speculating on the future of the country. Formerly from Breakfast Network, he plans to further hone his capability at writing.

Through FSAAM, he hopes to bring readers through seemingly complicated matters in Singapore in simplified manners, illuminate often-forgotten yet important topics for discussion in Singapore’s socio-political context. Hopefully his care for the country will indeed be reciprocated with a maturing society capable of making decisions that will set Singapore in good stead for the future.

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