The sorry state of unions in Singapore

Tripartite partners from the Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore National Employers Federation, the National Trade Union Congress at the May Day Rally 2012. Photo credit: NTUC

On May 24, an article was published in The Straits Times on the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and its commitment to the workers of Singapore. Only it didn’t seem to be a proper article; it was shared on both Twitter and Facebook with an “advertorial” disclaimer. Closer inspection found that it was part of a series of articles and videos featured on The Straits Times’ website, “brought to you by NTUC.”

Yup. Our national confederation of trade unions bought ad space to assure people that it cares about the workers it represents.

This comes after it emerged that although bus drivers from the privatized public transport company SMRT received a wage increase, their work week was also changed from a five-day to a six-day week. A number of bus drivers sent an email to the press (including alternative websites) pointing out that the additional day’s work completely undermined any pay increase they were supposed to receive. The bus drivers — who chose to remain anonymous — also expressed unhappiness that their union had not helped them.

In TODAYonline’s article, the changes were supported and defended by NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Ong Ye Kung. The next day, the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) signaled their support for the change by coming forward to explain the new pay framework.

Although unions in Singapore have for years been criticized for neglecting the demands and voices of workers, this episode with SMRT and its bus drivers revived an outpouring of frustration and anger towards NTUC.

However, the May 24 advertorial insisted that NTUC was not a “toothless body,” and asserted that the unions had occasionally threatened employers with strikes.

Striking in Singapore

Singapore has been mostly strike-free for years. The last major strike came from the shipping industry in 1986, after then-President Ong Teng Cheong sanctioned it without informing the Cabinet. The issue was resolved within two days, but President Ong’s actions angered certain Cabinet members. Since then, strikes — other than the occasional ones carried out by migrant workers — have been more or less unheard of in the city-state.

Strikes and lock-outs in essential services — such as public transport services, broadcasting services and civil defense services — are covered under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. Workers in gas, electricity and water services are prohibited from striking, whilst others are not allowed to strike unless at least 14 days’ notice has been given, or while official conciliation proceedings are pending.

The Trade Disputes Act goes further, outlawing industrial action if:

a. it has any other object than the furtherance of a trade dispute within the trade or industry in which the persons taking part in the industrial action are engaged;

b. it is in furtherance of a trade dispute of which an Industrial Arbitration Court has cognizance; or

c. it is designed or calculated to coerce the Government either directly or by inflicting hardship on the community.

The penalty for participating in illegal industrial action can either come in the form of a fine of up to S$2,000 (approx. US$1,588) or imprisonment for a period of up to six months.

Singapore also has strict laws regarding protests and demonstrations, and all “cause-related activities” are governed under the Public Order Act. A single person can be considered to constitute an illegal assembly if he or she does not have a police permit to carry out the activity.

All these laws come together to make industrial action a difficult option. For the average worker, the possibility of trying to initiate a strike is slim. And although NTUC said in its advertorial that they have threatened strikes before, this may come as a surprise to Singaporean workers. Despite all the grievances of working Singaporeans, there have been no union-led strikes for over 20 years, and decisions — such as the decision to adjust the pay and workdays of the SMRT bus drivers — are often made unilaterally, and the workers informed afterwards.

Tripartism, or just plain conflict of interest?

Singapore has adopted the model of tripartism, where the government steps in to intervene and mediate between employers and employees. The Tripartite partners of Singapore are the Ministry of Manpower, NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).

The original idea behind tripartism was to prevent disruptions and nasty disagreements between workers and their bosses, but has since become a cause for concern with regard to conflicts of interest, where the same person ends up wearing lots of different hats when he or she should just have the one.

Case in point: NTUC Deputy Secretary-General Ong Ye Kung is the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union. But he is also a board member of SMRT Corporation. On top of that, he is also a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and stood as a candidate in the 2011 general election (although he didn’t get into parliament).

So, to sum up: a union leader is also on the board of the profit-driven company that employs the very public transport workers he is meant to represent, and also a member of the party that forms the current government. He is Tripartite all in himself!

And it isn’t just him: union members are sometimes tapped to stand as candidates for the PAP in elections. Some even go on to become government ministers.

Lim Swee Say, currently a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, shuffles between union and government. He was the deputy secretary-general of NTUC from 1997 − 1999, until he left to become the Minister for Trade and Industry. Five years and two other ministerial portfolios later, he was back to being the deputy secretary-general of NTUC again. In 2007 he became the secretary-general of NTUC, and holds the post until today.

Although the government would hold this up as an example of successful tripartism, many Singaporeans see this as a situation where ministers, union leaders and employers work together to forward their own interests at the expense of the ordinary Singaporean. Critics have often pointed out the many conflicts of interest that arise from such a porous system — how can the union leader speak for the employees when he is also on the board of the company, or part of the government that pushes through economic policies that do not help the working class?

Why do you smile so much?

In the advertorial in The Straits Times, NTUC’s Assistant Secretary-General Cham Hui Foong said that the trade unions had “teeth” and that they could “choose to bite or give a smile.”

Which then begs the question: why do you smile so much?

Perhaps trade unions do speak up a lot for the workers in closed-door meetings. But the discussions or actions taken by the unions in these meetings aren’t often made public. People can only judge by what they see, which does not always inspire the most confidence.

When top economists such as Lim Chong Yah and Yeoh Lam Keong spoke out about Singapore’s growing income equality and recommended structural changes to prepare for the future, NTUC Secretary-General Lim Swee Say disagreed and took the government’s stance.

Recently the National Wage Council (part of NTUC) recommended that the wages of low-income workers be increased by at least S$50 a month. However, critics have pointed out that it is much less than the wage restructuring proposed by Professor Lim Chong Yah, and that such a small increase is unlikely to help low-income workers deal with inflation, which has hit 5.4 percent.

Whenever the issue of the minimum wage is raised, union leaders hasten to say that it is not the solution for Singapore. Like the government, they emphasize increasing productivity or additional skills training to, in the words of  Lim Swee Say, build a “cheaper, better, faster” economy.

Perceptions of the NTUC

In early May I tweeted:

It had been just for fun, but the tweet was retweeted over 50 times (Twitter stops counting after 50), and I received many replies. Not a single one spoke up in support of the unions; mostly they just wanted to remind me of the redeemable movie-and-popcorn combos and restaurant deals. Apart from the usefulness of some of NTUC’s insurance plans, the sense that I get from talking about unions to Singaporeans is that NTUC has not truly represented the ordinary worker for a long, long time, and is now seen more as an extension of the ruling party.

If the NTUC really wants to rehabilitate its image and demonstrate the usefulness of its “teeth” it has a long way to go. Perhaps one way to start would be to stop buying ad space in the newspaper instead of engaging more with disgruntled workers.

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