Wednesday 6 May 2015

New labour chief Chan Chun Sing's goal: good jobs, good pay

NTUC to tie up with professional bodies to accredit skills of PMETs to help boost their prospects
By Chuang Peck Ming, The Business Times, 5 May 2015

"I DON'T aim to be a champion but if I do the correct things, being the champion is inevitable," said newly appointed labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

The words, however, are not his - he once heard someone else say them. He thinks it was former Singapore swimming champion Ang Peng Siong, but he isn't sure.

It doesn't matter. Mr Chan cited the quote because he believes in it and said he has always abided by it in his actions.

In his new job as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, which has over 800,000 members, this means making sure workers continue to have good jobs and good pay.

In seeking to keep workers in good jobs with good pay, the former army chief is not talking about just the rank-and-file workers who traditionally made up the bulk of union membership. He also includes professionals, managers, executives and technicians. These PMETs constitute over half of Singapore's 3.5 million-strong workforce.

In fact, Mr Chan specifically wants to modify and extend the compulsory wage ladders introduced under the Progressive Wage Model for low-wage workers to PMETs. For the latter, it will be in the form of skill ladders to boost their job prospects.

"The professional sector also needs the same concept applied in a different way," he said in an hour-long media interview.

The new labour leader said that to get more firms to buy into this, NTUC will tie up with professional bodies to accredit the skills of PMETs so that their skills will be recognised by different employers.

If all workers can secure good jobs with good pay to look after their families, Mr Chan, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said that that will free up more state resources to help needy Singaporeans who can't work - and he has met a fair number of them in his last job as Minister for Social and Family Development.

Singapore's tight labour market may appear to make his new job easy, but in truth Mr Chan may face more challenges than his predecessor Lim Swee Say, who is now the Minister for Manpower.

The global economy is growing more slowly while the competition for markets and investments is much tougher. At home, Singapore's productivity growth is still low and in need of a bigger push. Companies, meanwhile, are struggling with business restructuring in the face of more fickle and demanding customers, fast-changing technology and over-crowded industries.

A more direct challenge Mr Chan has to deal with is the fact that many jobs are becoming obsolete fast because of shorter product cycles and rapid automation.

He noted that when his mother was working - he was raised by a single parent - jobs outlived a worker's working lifespan; the opposite is true these days.

While new industries are also mushrooming and creating jobs, they require new and higher-level skills which are not produced quickly enough.

So compulsory education has given way to continuing education and training to upgrade and keep workers' skills current, Mr Chan said. And it is NTUC's business to track the job market and work with the government and employers to keep such education and training going.

Since joining the NTUC in January, Mr Chan has been visiting employers and unions daily to find out more about these changes and how to cope with them.

The visits were also intended to learn about the concerns and challenges facing companies and unions and to find ways for the two and the government - the tripartite partners - to cooperate better in tackling them.

"I have no grand plans but only to work together with everyone," Mr Chan said.

In particular, he is keen to get the government, employers and unions to deepen their teamwork, extending it from the national to sectoral level, to raise productivity and sharpen Singapore's competitive edge.

He understands that good jobs and good pay for the long haul come from strong productivity growth and business investments. And businesses will only put their money in Singapore if it is business-friendly and competitive.

Mr Chan said that companies based here don't have to compete on cheap labour in the global market. They can instead offer quality, creativity and trust to win business.

He pointed out that Singapore's unique strength lies in the good relationship between the government, employers and unions which provides stability and allows businesses to plan for the long term

While this tripartism, as it is known, has been forged over many years, Mr Chan cautioned against "resting on our laurels". Singapore must continue to build on it and push tripartite cooperation down from the top to the ground level, he said.

And NTUC under him will remain a champion of tripartism because it is good for business which will create goods with good pay for workers.

Chan Chun Sing eyes skill ladders for PMEs
New labour chief sees model as way to better prospects for this group
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 5 May 2015

JUST as compulsory wage ladders were introduced for workers on low pay, the new labour chief wants to introduce skill ladders to boost the career prospects of professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

Mr Chan Chun Sing took over as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general yesterday and said in his first media interview: "The professional sector also needs the same concept applied in a different way."

Since 2012, the NTUC has launched compulsory wage ladders that give cleaners, security guards and landscape workers higher pay as their skills improve.

These were also introduced to sectors like food and beverage and transport, but it is up to companies to decide whether to implement them.

To get more firms to bite, Mr Chan wants to tie up with professional bodies to accredit the skills of PMEs, so that their skills can be recognised by different employers.

Citing human resource professionals as an example, Mr Chan said that a skill ladder would help them to upgrade their skills and progress from managing staff in a small and medium-sized enterprise to a multinational corporation.

Besides taking care of rank-and-file workers, Mr Chan said: "NTUC has to also take care of the increasing number of PME employees and workers, whose challenges are different."

A key way of helping workers is through SkillsFuture, he noted.

During the annual Budget debate this year, the Government announced the SkillsFuture Credit account scheme for all Singaporeans, with every citizen aged 25 or older receiving an initial $500 grant to fund training courses.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that industry panels comprising companies, employers and government agencies will be set up in key sectors to boost skills among workers and productivity at firms.

An advantage of the sectoral approach is that productivity improvements and workers' training can be drilled down to company level, Mr Chan said.

"The two complement each other - the SkillsFuture (scheme) and the company training," he said.

"I prefer not to talk in generalities. I prefer to look at each individual company, each sector and examine the needs... and then we come up with specific plans to help the respective companies, the respective unions can gear up their workers."

Mr Chan said he will elaborate on his plans for the NTUC in a few months' time after he visits more companies and unions.

In October this year, the new labour chief will face his first union elections, in which more than 500 union leaders from 60 unions vote for a new central committee - the NTUC's highest decision-making body - for a four-year term.

Mr Chan said: "NTUC is not a policymaking body. NTUC's (role) is to keep in close touch with the ground, understand the concerns of the ground (from) both the employees and the employers, and be a conduit of this information and interface this with the government agencies, so that... the Government can make better policies."

He also paid tribute to outgoing labour chief Lim Swee Say, who was appointed Minister for Manpower yesterday.

"He is the embodiment of tripartism. He has almost internalised this himself," he said.

"I'm very fortunate to have Swee Say going over to MOM (Manpower Ministry) as a tripartite partner because we don't have to start all over again. There's a new labour chief and a new Minister for Manpower, but actually we are on the same team."

New labour chief gives Jurong Island workers a hand
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 5 May 2015

FOR more than 15 years, workers at Jurong Island's oil refineries have been frustrated by infrequent shuttle buses.

But things will improve when a new bus service starts next month, thanks to new labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

Mr Chan stepped in after hearing about the problem during a meeting last month with leaders of the United Workers of Petroleum Industry union (UWPI).

The JTC Corporation, which manages Jurong Island, contacted the union shortly after and discussions led to the new service.

Mr Chan's sincerity in improving workers' lives has left a lasting impression on union leaders.

"It took just one meeting with him (Mr Chan) to solve a problem that has troubled workers on Jurong Island for 15 years," said Mr K. Karthikeyan, the UWPI's general secretary.

Mr Chan said he has been meeting union leaders every day to get up to speed with the demands of being labour chief - a role which he was given less than four months to prepare for.

So far, he has covered about half of the 60 unions affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

The 45-year-old joined NTUC full-time in late January and took over as secretary-general yesterday. "Whenever you take over a job, you always hope to have the longest runway," he said.

"But life is never such that you can have everything that you want but you make the best of what you have."

Unlike Mr Chan, recent NTUC secretaries-general had been seasoned hands in the labour movement before they were promoted.

Mr Chan's predecessor, Mr Lim Swee Say, was deputy secretary-general from 1997 to 1999 before returning in 2004 and taking over the helm as labour chief three years later.

Before Mr Lim Swee Say was Mr Lim Boon Heng, who spent 26 years working in the NTUC, including the later half as its secretary-general.

Mr Chan said his new appointment was not the result of him asking to join the labour movement. Rather, he was invited by the NTUC central committee.

"I'm not the kind who would say that I want to go here, I want to go there," he said.

"I'm the type of person that if someone offers me an opportunity, and if I think I can make a contribution and if the person is willing to give me a chance, I will go all out and do my best."

Asked about his leadership style, Mr Chan replied: "It is too early to tell. A good leader is not one that has a particular style - we all have our idiosyncrasies - but someone who can bring out the best from his team by adapting his leadership style."

Mr Chan also believes leaders should adapt to organisations to bring out the best in their staff.

Ms K. Thanaletchimi, president of the Healthcare Services Employees' Union, said: "Mr Chan was very humble when he said he has a lot to learn from us."

Mr Fang Chin Poh, general secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union, said: "He is down-to-earth and understands the concerns of workers, especially low-income ones."

Additional reporting by Joanna Seow and Aw Cheng Wei

Singapore must not leave older workers behind: Chan Chun Sing
Republic will have to keep innovating and compete based on quality of ideas
By Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 4 May 2015

With challenges brought on by an ageing population, the Republic has little choice but to accelerate the transformation of its workforce and economy, said new labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

Yet, at the same time, it must not “run ahead” of its labour supply in its bid to transform the economy, as the livelihoods of an older generation that is less educated at stake. “It’s a fine balance that we constantly have to shift over time,” said Mr Chan, who took over from Mr Lim Swee Say this week as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

About half of younger workers are university graduates, but only about one in 20 of the older generation possess a degree. “As we bring in many of the new, higher value-add industries, high value-add jobs, it’s not a given that the (older generation that is less educated) can all take on the new jobs,” he said. “On the other hand, you also don’t want to (go for only) lower-tech, lower value-add ones when your stock of workers has progressed.”

Speaking in a media interview last week on his new role, Mr Chan reiterated that the national SkillsFuture initiative will play an important role in continuing education, with workers needing to upgrade their skills in tandem with shorter product life cycles. It will allow individuals to take ownership of skills they can apply across different companies or jobs, said Mr Chan.

And aside from rank-and-file workers, the NTUC will help the growing ranks of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), he said. The Progressive Wage Model concept, which has involved sectors such as cleaning, landscaping and security, is also applicable to PMETs, through a structured development path or progressive skills ladder, for instance, he added.

Mr Chan said that with a citizen workforce set to shrink in about five years’ time, Singapore will have to keep innovating and compete based on the quality of its ideas. He pointed out that facing off against competitors with more abundant and cheaper labour is not a new problem for Singapore.

“We always compete on the quality of our ideas, the speed of our innovation and the trust that people have (in us). These are the three fundamental ingredients,” he said.

Pointing to economies such as Switzerland and Germany, Mr Chan said prices of what they produce might be higher, but companies could still remain highly competitive. His challenge as labour chief is an “evergreen” one — for the workers of tomorrow to continue having good jobs and salaries that allow them to fulfil aspirations and take care of their families, said Mr Chan, who was previously Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Defence Minister.

The tripartite relationship of the Government, businesses and the labour movement has to remain strong, he said. It is Singapore’s unique advantage and future tripartite leaders must forge similarly robust relationships, said Mr Chan.

Inducted into the NTUC only four months ago, Mr Chan said every day had been an “intensive programme” of meetings with unions and companies. He meets up to four unions or companies each day, and has so far met about half of the 60-odd unions under the NTUC.

Asked about his leadership style and whether it would be different from his predecessor, who was known for his colourful catchphrases, Mr Chan said it was too early to tell. On leading the NTUC in the next General Election, which must be held by January 2017, he said prospective labour Members of Parliament (MP) must be close to the ground and add value to workers’ lives. “If you take care of workers, if you’re fair to workers, if you help workers grow, then being a good labour MP is inevitable,” he said.

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