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10 things you probably didn't know about NTUC

a year ago / ntuc / worklifesg

Yes, it's more than just insurance and supermarkets.

I've got to admit. If I weren't doing thorough (and I mean very thorough) research to do up this piece, my knowledge of NTUC was pretty much limited to FairPrice - in fact, most of us don't even call it FairPrice I think. We usually just say we're heading to NTUC to do our grocery shopping, RIGHT?

Oh ya and my annual travel insurance plan purchased via NTUC Income. (They're pretty reasonably-priced by the way.)

So anyway yes, I won't judge you but honestly, there's much more to NTUC than these and I was actually quite fascinated with what I found and maybe you'd be too :grin:

1) What exactly is a union?

Don't laugh. You'd be surprised at how many people I know in their 30s actually don't know the answer to this.

To put it simply, a trade union is an organisation of workers who have come together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of its trade, improving safety standards, achieving higher pay and benefits such as health care and retirement, increasing the number of employees an employer assigns to complete the work, and better working conditions. (Source)

Unions may organise a particular section of skilled workers (craft unionism), a cross-section of workers from various trades (general unionism), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry (industrial unionism). In Singapore, we have 60 NTUC-Affiliated Unions and Associations such as the AREU (Attractions, Resorts & Entertainment Union), DBSSU (DBS Staff Union) and NTWU (National Transport Workers' Union) to name a few.

2) You CAN strike in Singapore

One of the most common misconception in Singapore is that it is illegal to go on strikes. On the contrary, strikes are legal so long they follow rules stipulated in the Trade Unions Act and Trade Disputes Act such as giving their employers 14 days of notice.

3) But really, it's more than just about strikes

In 2012, we had the SMRT bus drivers from China who decided to go on strike (like I said, it's legal to do so except that they didn't follow the necessary lawful protocol) but prior to that, we had 26 strike-free years in Singapore. (The last incident was in Jan 1986 at Tuas when 61 workers from American oilfield equipment company Hydril picketed outside their Tuas factory to protest against anti-union initiatives that the firm had taken that included axing six unionists.)

Does this mean that our unions are weak?

On the contrary, at the tea session I attended with Mr Lim Swee Say when he was the Secretary-General of NTUC, he pointed out something that makes quite a bit of sense - Strong unions do not need strikes.

"If you can get what you want without going on strike, would you go on strike? Singapore’s unemployment rate is very low and average salary is increasing. Wage gain is faster than inflation today. I think we are doing well without going rough, don’t you think so?"

4) The late Lee Kuan Yew was probably the original Unionist

The late Mr Lee began his political life by representing trade unions. As a young legal assistant, he looked after the interests of the postmen who went on strike to get them higher wages, better service terms and "the removal of thick printed red stripes on their trousers making them look like circus attendants". Subsequently, he went on to represent the clerical union of Post & Telegraph and his heart was always with the workers throughout his years governing Singapore.

In 2011 at NTUC's 50th Anniversary, he'd said - "In government, I have never forgotten that it is in the interest of the workers and their unions that we must strive for growth and development. In other words, growth is meaningless unless it is shared by the workers, shared not only directly in wage increases but indirectly in better homes, better schools, better hospitals, better playing fields and, generally, a healthier environment for families to bring up their children."

You can see his entire speech here.

5) Tripartism

In Singapore, there is a tripartite relationship between the unions, employers and the Government - with the government, a responsible labour movement, and enlightened employers adopting a consultative problem-solving approach to address the challenges of industrialisation for the mutual benefit of employers, workers, and society.

When we gained independence in 1965, this country faced a pretty dire economic situation with limited resources and industrialisation was necessary for our survival. The crucial challenge then was to attract and retain foreign investment to create jobs for Singaporeans, and to achieve sustainable growth and development.

As such, we made the call to move away from the traditional adversarial unionism and confrontational labour-management relations, with a shared conviction to strive for industrial peace with justice.

As each social partner lives up and delivers on its commitments, employers are able to develop profitable and sustainable businesses and this had led to the economy growth we have enjoyed and a better quality of life in an inclusive and cohesive society. This harmonious tripartite relationship we have in Singapore has worked quietly but effectively in the background to better the lives of our working people.

6) Uniquely Singapore

This tripartism model is unique to Singapore.

I love how this city state of ours is always on the forefront of everything.

PM Lee mentioned in this year's May Day rally that other countries have tried to emulate but are not able to replicate this model to much success.

In the words of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew,

“May Day 1960 will always be a notable occasion in the history of the trade union movement of Singapore, for this is the first time that May Day is celebrated in Singapore when there is a government which is openly on the workers’ side.”

7) National Delegates Conference

The National Delegates Conference happens once every four years. Similar to our parliament, the NDC is where leadership of the NTUC would be elected.

And yes, even Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing has to go through this elections of sorts and be voted in with the unionists' support.

8) Union leaders do not get paid for their union work

Union leaders do A LOT, like really a lot - You can read my recent piece about meeting the Tan family to get a rough idea and this is only one of the numerous cases the union leader has went all out to help in the past 25 years.

Union work is mostly all about on the ground and frankly, it's quite a thankless job. Whatever they do is beyond their day jobs and they don't get paid for their union work. Everything is really just, from the heart.

9) NTUC helps migrant workers too

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Migrant workers is a topic very close to my heart (I'll probably write a separate post about this soon) and I was very pleasantly surprised to know that the NTUC represents migrant workers too via the Migrant Workers' Centre. They probably don't get as much coverage as the other MW organisations and I was super happy to learn that they provide quite a bit of assistance, opportunities and representation for these workers.

10) There is a union song

And a pretty catchy one at that too.