Monday 17 December 2012

When 'strike-free' breeds complacency

For tripartism to really work, all parties - Govt, workers and employers - have to be strong
By Han Fook Kwang, The Straits Times, 16 Dec 2012

This might seem like a subversive question to ask, but is it a good thing for Singapore to have had 26 strike-free years?

When not a single worker felt aggrieved enough to take industrial action, does it mean all is hunky-dory on the labour-management front?

It took 171 SMRT bus drivers from China just two days to show there was trouble beneath the calm surface.

And it started a flurry of activity among employers, unionists and political leaders, the likes of which Singapore has not seen since the 1960s.

The national employers' association e-mailed a five-page document on handling workers' grievances to 22,000 employers with a combined workforce of 1.6 million. There was much sensible advice in it on how to make sure unhappiness in the workplace is not bottled up and is given a proper airing.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) swung into action, promising to unionise as many of the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers here as possible.

And the Government acted quickly to bring the errant striking bus drivers to court and to remind everyone about the law on taking industrial action.

If this was a much-needed wake-up call for members of the so-called tripartite partnership, you almost wished there were more strikes.

If one strike brought forth so much action, think what a few more could have done.

I say this only half in jest because it was from the mayhem of an earlier past that the peace and order we see today emerged.

In fact, out of the turmoil of the 1960s, when a strike a day was not uncommon, the NTUC was formed.

It was created by the non-communist leadership of the ruling People's Action Party to counter the then dominant labour organisation, the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). But it was not an equal battle because SATU had at one time the support of 82 unions compared to only 12 for the fledgling NTUC.

That union fight was a proxy for the life-and-death political battle between the communist and non-communist leadership within the PAP.

When the dust finally settled, the non-communists, led by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, prevailed. SATU was dismantled and the NTUC became the only labour organisation that mattered.

Because Singaporeans experienced at close quarters the intense battle for hearts and minds among the competing unions, they gained a keen understanding of issues affecting workers' rights, the role of trade unions and how they could be politicised.

In contrast, what have 26 strike-free years brought?

I can think of several things: complacency about labour-management relations, a lack of understanding of the role of unions and of workers' rights and, perhaps most dangerous of all, a failure to appreciate the importance of strong unions.

Ask any Singaporean what has brought about the harmonious relations between workers and bosses today and you are likely to hear that oft-repeated word: tripartism.

It is a lazy answer because, for most, that is just a label to stick on something they know only vaguely about and have little interest in.

What exactly is tripartism, what makes it work and why would it continue to work in future?

The simple answer is that it means the Government, workers and employers working together for everyone's benefit - together they grow the pie and make sure the results of that growth are fairly distributed.

What makes it work in Singapore?

Another simple answer: It is about the three parties trusting that each will play its part for the common good, and not constantly be at odds because one wants to gain the upper hand.

What is not so readily understood is that for this to really work, all three parties have to be strong. If one party is weak, it will be a lopsided triangle that will be unstable.

In Singapore, everyone accepts that the Government is strong; some critics might even say too strong, but that is another story.

Employers here have also to be strong because Singapore is a market economy open to international competition and only the fittest will survive and do well.


The NTUC is no weakling either, having had 50 years to build a formidable organisation and a leadership drawn from the same pool as the ruling party. Its political clout is derived from its close relationship with the PAP, and the resources and organisational capabilities to boot.

But of the three, the NTUC is also the most vulnerable to charges that it has not been strong enough to further the interests of workers against those of employers.

Critics will say it did not do enough to raise the wages of workers at the bottom whose salaries have stagnated, resulting in the widening income gap.

And that it did not sound the alarm early enough when the immigration tap was wide open to admit record numbers of foreign workers, a policy which the Government has acknowledged strained the public transport and housing infrastructure, and which critics say depressed wages at the lower end.

Some economists have also cited the decreasing share that wages form as a proportion of the economy, in contrast to the increasing share of profits, as another example of the lopsidedness of the growth.

There is also the criticism that union membership is not inclusive enough when only 11 per cent of Singapore's 1.16 million foreign workers are unionised. I am sure the NTUC is well able to defend its record against these criticisms.

Its strongest case will be to point to how much workers' real incomes and living standards have grown on the strength of the economy built as a result of the Singapore brand of tripartism, of which it is a key partner.

Set against the problems that countries in Europe and the United States face, these are no mean achievements.

But of the tripartite partners, it has to work the hardest to persuade detractors that it has done enough for Singaporeans who have been left behind in the country's success story.

This will become even more challenging in future.

How will the tripartite relationship change when the politics of this place becomes more competitive and pluralistic?

Will NTUC's close ties with the PAP come under pressure when the ruling party's dominance is challenged in the new normal?

If ever workers feel it has not done enough to protect their interests, will they start to organise themselves and create new unions outside the NTUC fold?

And will some of these unions align themselves with opposition parties that are ideologically closer to their cause?

If indeed this happens, Singapore trade unionism would have come full circle from the Satu-NTUC days of the 1960s.

Not possible?

Never say never in politics.

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