Would it be too much to say that Singaporeans have completely forgotten why we need trade unions? In a climate of industrial peace, a strong administration (that is, the Ministry of Manpower) and jobs available easily whenever you need a new one… have we perhaps paid too little attention to the cornerstone of industrial harmony?
Yet the conflict of interest between the Employer and his workers remains. Employers needed to keep wages down. The higher the cost the lower the profit the less money to reinvest in machinery to compete. For the workers wages were their only means of subsistence. If they fell too low they starved.
The original work of the trade unions was to negotiate with each individual employer for better wages, terms and conditions and improved living standards. Whilst this hasn’t changed, what we’ve done in Singapore is to take it a little further.
Many of the most basic negotiations such as AWS, working hours and overtime has been incorporated into the Employment Act.
Employers are bargained with at a national level – that is, with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). Most of the overtones, wage standards and benefits are set here. Together with the Civil Service, these two bodies lead the country’s tempo in labour standards.
“Having the passion to serve is the most important thing for a union leader. With no passion, you won’t stay long (in the Labour Movement) and be committed to serve.” said Ms. Joanne Chua, 45
It has been a long and difficult struggle. Singaporeans have forgotten that one of the main areas of trade unionism was about the worker’s interests. The well-paying job, a mobile workforce and the abundance of jobs -is- in the worker’s interests. Preserving industrial harmony is still a core area of activity today, as is fighting to maintain and improve living standards and with that pay.
When the question is asked “why do Singaporeans still need the trade union”, the response surely has to be where would you be without.
The Unionist then has much to do. Beyond simple negotiating, he has a strong role to play as a stakeholder of the nation.
“It has showed how we can broaden our perspective for any given issue and see how we can tackle it from different viewpoints. These are things that not just help me be more effective as a union leader, but also personally, as these are lessons I can pass on to my children too,” said Mr Hairis Shamshi Mori, 51 an Executive Council member of the Union of Power and Gas Employees (UPAGE).
In a climate where businesses have the financial power of small countries, where national borders are blurred and where new technologies displace manpower on large scales, we need the unions more than ever. The work of the unionists are constantly evolving, upgrading and the challenge is perennially fresh.