Previously, I suggested that it is time that NTUC reinvents itself in order to remain relevant as a Labour Movement to the working class in a rapidly changing economy.
Aside from keeping up with the fight for workers’ rights, those guys have to identify gaps in the workforce which put the vulnerable in a precarious position.
At any time, these marginalised and vulnerable groups in the workforce can fall through the cracks, further inhibiting and disadvantaging them. More often than not, these groups suffer from workplace discrimination, intolerance, social stigmatization, and subjected to improper labour practices, and these groups include single parents, migrant workers, the physically disadvantaged, and even the low-skilled self-employed e.g hawkers
Here’s a quick run through of some of these marginalized workers:
Sure, NTUC has the Migrant Workers Centre (MWC) under its wing. As an NGO, the organisation champions fair employment practices and the well-being of migrant workers in Singapore. The MWC also provides interim humanitarian assistance and aid for distressed migrant workers, promote social integration and acceptance for them, as well as advocating for fair resolution and assertion of migrant workers’ rights. However, more can still be done for the migrant workers in Singapore.
While the MWC has taken great strides in expediting positive changes for migrant workers, the fight for their rights and welfare is a continuous one. The MWC has successfully fought for itemised and electronic pay slips for workers and the employment act will be amended in 2016 to reflect these changes. This momentous legislation will prevent unscrupulous employers from gaming the system and defrauding their migrant workers unchecked.
Yet in 2016, the pride of migrant workers are still negligible. The labour movement has to look beyond applying basic human/workers’ rights to also address the welfare of these migrant workers. The most salient problem in the minds of the public is the subpar living conditions provided to these workers. If they are not housed in a shipping container, they would be housed in dorms which are infested with bed bugs and rodents, on top of poor ventilation.
We need to look beyond the minimum wage model to come up with an improved progressive wage model for rank and file workers, it is definitely possible for the MWC to work on an enforced minimum guidelines on workers’ accommodation that employers must meet in order to retain their workers.
The living conditions of these migrant workers must improve. It is beyond comprehension that the workers that slave to build the houses that we now call home, are not provided with livable quarters themselves. Beyond this paradox, these workers are humans and they deserve much more than what they are getting.
Single parents, be it mothers or fathers, are perhaps one of the most overlooked marginalised groups in our society. Unlike other discriminated groups such as migrant workers, single parenthood issues are often not discussed as they are taboo topics in a conservative society like Singapore’s. Hence, problems and issues faced by single parents are often swept under the rug and remain unknown.
The Singapore government has always pushed for the heteronormative and traditional nuclear family to be the model of a perfect family for Singaporeans. In order to spur the formation of more of these families, many policies are put in place to support Singaporeans to strive towards this goal. These include the Child Development Account (CDA), Baby Bonus Cash Gift, Housing grants, and many others. However, those that fall outside the boundaries of the traditional nuclear family are not entitled to these benefits.
Beyond the lack of family development benefits, single parents are also subjected to discrimination at their workplaces. A local study shows that among many others, single parents find work-family role conflict to be the most problematic. This refers to difficulties in juggling “time, energy and other resources” between work and family responsibilities. As a result of the structural limitations that they face and their inability to commit to their work and caregiving responsibilities, these single parents are often forced to settle for part-time work which pays poorly. This extends to the problem of underemployment for Singapore.
There are at present some reasonable initiatives. The NTUC’s Women’s Development Secretariat (WDS) has been pushing for the Flexible Work Arrangements (FDA); and initiative to allow working mothers to arrange with their employers to work 4 days a week from home. While it sounds like a great initiative, the Assistant Sec-Gen of NTUC, Ms Cham Hui Fong, said that only 15-20% of unionised companies have this initiative in place. This is merely a tiny fragment of working mothers that have access to this option. Apart from continuing to fight for this great initiative to be incorporated into more companies, we have to recall that single fathers too, face the same challenges as single mothers. The initiative should ideally be available to both sexes.
This initiative would make a world of a difference for single parents in Singapore, after all that they have been through to bring up a child alone.
Also seen as the non-unionised, freelancers are the solo fliers that are not bound by the structures of corporations or organisations. While freelancers are often thought of as designers, artistes, and creative individuals, we often neglect the fact that hawkers are freelancers too. They are business owners and self-employed. We can attach a fancy and elite tag to these hawkers but in reality, they do not get to enjoy the benefits and welfare that even rank and file workers in an MNC receive.
A hawker’s life is filled with uncertainties and they have to put in a lot of hard work and hours to make ends meet. I have had the pleasure of talking to several hawkers and what is apparent is that, besides the fact that many are old and frail, these hawkers are slaving their lives away.
As a low-skilled self-employed, hawkers put in an average of 12 hours of work per day. This includes preparing for the day’s lunch and dinner service, actual service, cleaning, and preparing for the next day. Apart from having to be up as early as 3am to begin preparations, hawkers also have to endure working environments that not many are able to go through; all these without structural labour practices and protections. For instance, a day of sickness simply means a day’s wage loss. Yet, they are still expected to pay for the rent for that day.
Granted, these hawkers are not unionised and they may not be entitled to the benefits that unionised workers get. However, they play a massive role in sustaining Singapore’s economy.
Although they are not recognised in the workforce, they provide affordable food for the country’s working class and above all, they form the beating heart of the country’ heritage. The labour movement could possibly look into working with NEA (which has the hawkers within its purview) to strive towards a functional labour policy for the hawkers in Singapore.
Tripartism require decades of realized success working in tandem with the government and employers to buttress the country’s economy. Now that the country has established and maintain a working tripartite system and has the country’s workers’ rights in check, we can move on to achieve greater things. But great things can only come by when everyone (literally) is taken care of.
As Van Gogh astutely puts it, “great things are done by a series of small things put together.”
No one in the country is too small or too minor to be left behind. The labour movement should continue to pursue issues that affect their workers, even if these issues do not fall within its purview or are often not conveniently overlooked.