A few decades ago, if you spoke with any man in the street about unions, chances are you’d have a lively conversation. Even in Singapore. Flip the newspaper archives of the 70s, 80s and even the 90s, it was almost certain that you’d see passionate articles and letters about labour rights and the who’s who of labour politics.
Today, all that has changed.
Around the globe unionisation rates are falling. They’re falling because they are fast becoming irrelevant to the working person. Labour has become complex, a larger percentage of the workforce is well educated and can fight for themselves and capital is available to a wider audience – employees do not have to and do not want to remain in the workforce, many envisage themselves to be business owners and are largely sympathetic to those who were once labelled “capitalist pigs”.
It’s the same thing in Singapore. Our workforce is now increasingly heavy on the PME side, many employees are now much better paid and labour protection in laws have made disputes unnecessary. One could even ask – are trade unions even relevant anymore? Would it be better if they were shut down?
The answer is – no. Although trade unions no longer have to take to the streets or fight the primitive way (through strikes and protests), their presence is ever so important. Without the trade unions, businesses would be only profit centric. Businesses are by nature, cold and calculative. Without a counter power to them, free to pursue their own interests… they would most certainly leave workers worse off.
So how has the labour movement of Singapore kept up with the changing times?
The perspective of our trade unions is not narrowly confined to rights, protection and wage increases. Those things are important yes, but there are so many other facets of a worker’s life that needs just as much, if not more, focus on. There are many questions that need to be addressed, for example:
- How do you make sure a worker remains employable for life?
- How do we protect the worker against necessary and reasonable redundancies?
- How do we help the worker improve his or her value across industries and time?
- What about the families of the workers? And their living expenses?
- Are there categories of workers that are out of the trade union’s reach?
These are just a small sample of the questions that seek answers…and action.
Traditional labour federations focus a lot and perhaps, only on the unions of a country. To carry out the work set out above, trade unions alone do not form the complete picture of a country’s labour landscape. In Singapore, the NTUC is expanding and entrenching its reach in five areas:
- The trade unions
- Professional associations
- SME networks
- Freelancer networks
- Migrant worker networks
The strength of these networks allow the many different organisations within to leverage off each other. They can share contacts, resources, training, events and as one massive body, they are able to better improve the welfare of all workers in Singapore and as well as the stakeholders, government and business owner.
You can read this article to learn a little bit more about how the NTUC organises these networks.
Under its uAssociate’s program, the NTUC has gone out to court professional organisations (such as human resource, accountants, engineering and so on) to join their extensive networks. Starting with only 12 such associates in January 2015, it has more than doubled itself to 26 in 2016 and the number continues to grow.
SMEs hire about 70% of the Singapore workforce. The labour movement’s SME initiative has inked some 42 memorandum of understandings (MOU) with various association of companies. This puts them in a position to listen and help some 70,640 workers across various industries.
With these networks coming together, more and more cross pollinating events have been organised. One such example of these events is the NTUC U SME symposium. First started in 2015, the event is now attended by some 300 SME bosses and HR managers.
Various closed door dialogues are organised to give workers, business owners and government a platform to air their challenges, hopes and wishes. All these are invaluable to the entire community and constructively produces better results for all parties.
“To us, companies and workers doing well are both sides of the same coin,” said Chan Chung Sing, Secretary General of the NTUC.
To drive the point further, Chan related a recent example to the local media. He told of how a foreign high-tech company based here, became surprised when the union wanted to help them with recruitment and training, instead of fighting for collective agreements and collective bargaining.
The labour movement of Singapore works in unusual ways. Very different from the, perhaps primitive methods that have entrenched themselves around the world.
It may be unusual, but is it effective? Our unionisation rates, activities, labour participation rates and low rates of disputes are a bit of an anomaly when compared with its turbulent global counterparts.
“What we need to imagine are even more creative ways to reach out to all workers. The universe of what we can do for our workers is only limited by our imagination,” continued Chan.
Businesses and governments are continuously reacting and changing to international pressures and movements. There is no reason why labour politics, be it policies or activities… should stay the same.