The question is always ‘What is the role of a labor movement?’ How much is about collective bargaining, how much is about social change for all workers? – Andy Stern
Employment is not an entitlement, it is not a right and neither is it guaranteed.
In a place like Singapore, where the unemployment rates are so low and the number of jobs is so abundant, we slowly forget painful truths about the relationship between employee and employer.
Let it not be forgotten that the employer has his own rights as well: he has the right to set contracts, a right to hire, a right to fire and a right to implement discipline in his firm.
The employer and his firm does not owe it to anyone to give a job, to a raise nor even to guarantee longevity of employment. He exists for profit and all his motives are centered on accumulating wealth.
The government has a difficult relationship with the employer. On one hand, they provide a source of income to the citizen-worker. On the other hand, wealth is a form of power and with this wealth a strong business has the ability influence and control the lives (directly) of its workers and (indirectly) the society at large. A government has to be in a neutral position to balance the positive effects of businesses against its monetary powers.
So if a government has to be neutral and the employer is biased to profit, which other organization can an individual turn to for help, advice, mentorship and direction?
It is the trade union.
Championing and fighting for better working conditions, wages, and welfare for the working class is the creed and beating heart of all labour movements all over the world.
But we do it a little differently. Rather than employing disruptive industrial action and adversarial unionism to expedite positive changes for workers’ welfare, Singapore’s tripartite system promotes cooperation-based, harmonious labour-management relations.
Singapore’s tripartite model of labour relations underpin decades of economic competitiveness and growth; this social partnership has led to a track record of industrial peace which assures investors of the stable business and economic landscape here.
Despite the calm and sterile conditions brought about by the tripartite system, there is a growing concern of its sustainability, and adaptive capability to the dynamism of a modern global economy. Union membership is already withering across Europe and parts of East Asia as globalisation and intensifying capitalisation have traded in bargaining power of unions for businesses to ramp up profits, putting the working class at risk of poorer working conditions and declining welfare.
For that reason, workers are not too eager to be a member of unions. These are some of the destabilising forces that are potentially treacherous to the model of tripartism in Singapore; more so with Singapore’s open economy.
This is further exacerbated by the quiet nature of labour and industrial discussions here.
The hush hush affair of negotiation and arbitration in Singapore begs these questions: Has the Labour Movement been too successful that there is no point to being a part of the union, or is the Labour Movement too soft to be purposeful?
The ‘invisible’ Labour Movement in Singapore is indeed facing a problem.
There have been numerous developments over the past decades to enhance the welfare of workers in Singapore. From the establishment of the National Wage Council (NWC) and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment (TAFEP), to the formation of cooperatives such as Fairprice, the NTUC has explicitly and also subliminally strive to protect the welfare of workers. However, these efforts have also clouded the minds of the workers they are protecting. Many equate NTUC to Fairprice, or to Income. These cooperatives have taken the forefront while the essence of NTUC itself, which is to champion labour rights and welfare, takes the back seat.
NTUC is now seen as the Santa that gives out rebates, coupons, and discounts to those who shop at supermarkets.
Is it now time for the NTUC to reinvent itself? The last major transformation for NTUC was the Modernisation Seminar in 1969 when the Employment and Industrial Relations Acts were passed. It was then too, that the underlying tenet of cooperation between the government, unions, and employers became the driving factor of labour relations in Singapore.
Now that the model of tripartite system is in a way, on autopilot, and is doing (too) well, NTUC has to evolve. Apart from continuously championing the rights of workers, the organisation should strive to be a visionary in a dynamic economy. The restructuring of Singapore’s economy to be geared towards a knowledge-based one, has led to a rapid increase in proportion of PMETs in the workforce. For that reason, there is a need for NTUC to recalibrate its advocacy for its workers and not just direct all its efforts and initiatives for the rank and file group.
More importantly, there are gaps in society and in the workforce that have been overlooked by the Labour Movement. Priding itself as an NGO that strives for the betterment of people’s lives, the NTUC should appear more publically to be the guardian of welfare for all workers in Singapore and the grandfather of all NGOs. As a powerful entity recognised not only by Singaporeans but by labour experts all over the world, it is time NTUC reach out to help other NGOs in helping the marginalised in Singapore.
There are the disabled and the single parents (both single mothers and fathers) in Singapore’s workforce that need all the help they can get but they are not. There are the homeless whom could be empowered to do more with their lives.
There are the lower-skilled self-employed such as the hawkers and taxi drivers that are not recognised to be part of the workforce. The hawkers toil in poor working conditions without any structural labour benefits to protect them. One sick day means that one day’s wage is gone, yet they still have to pay the rent. There are pockets of marginalised workers and groups in Singapore that require empowerment from a body of authority.
Apart from NTUC and its body of trade unions, there is no other organization better suited to do this job.