3 Forces Threatening Singapore Labour Unions

October 29, 20159:34 pm1670 views

Singapore unions have traditionally organised workers based on ground-up efforts of employees who want to collectively bargain with their employers.

The more members the union has, the stronger its mandate will be. The leaders its members elects also determine the future of the union. The caveat is that these union leaders must continue to be gainfully employed by a company which is unionized by the union.

However, with the ubiquity of internet, smartphones and apps, the traditional employer-employee relationship is evolving, giving rise to 3 forces that threaten the existence of Singapore unions.

For a brief recap on how unions unionise a company, read this article.

1. New business models

With the emergence of new business models such as Bitcoin (vs banks), Coursera with massive open online courses (vs tertiary education institutions) and Spotify (vs CD shops), workers face shorter employment periods and more frequent job changes.

In the recent International Forum on Tripartism held in Singapore, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions shared with local and international delegates:

  • 30% of workers change job every year
  • 50% of workers stay in the same job for 3 years or more
  • workers typically have 6 jobs in his lifetime (vs EU average of 4 jobs)

The tripartite leaders cannot predict how much the Singapore labour situation will follow that of Denmark’s, but they are concerned that workers do not have the skills to keep up with job requirements and become unemployed or underemployed. This means union membership may fall as their members increasingly become unemployed or find employment in another industry.

With the number of PMEs expected to eclipse rank-and-file workers in the near future, NTUC Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing highlighted that the higher frequency of job changes by Singapore PMEs will make it more difficult for unions to groom leaders.

2. Changing employer-employee relationships

The prevalence of impermanent employment is rising in Singapore.

Although there are no official numbers, the number of freelancers in Singapore is growing. More millennials are quitting their jobs and seeking freelance work via online apps and platforms.

The government service is increasingly offering contract jobs before conversion to permanent positions. There are grey areas between whether Uber drivers are considered employees or freelancers.

This lack of permanence to a single company and the individualistic nature of the employee-employer relationship will affect the workers’ perception whether there is a need to join a union and how collective bargaining through the union can possibly help the union member.

Social dialogues are shifting away from unions towards social activist groups, social media and other platforms of public discourse.

3. Rising aspirations of the workforce

Over the last 50 years, the workplace aspirations of Singapore’s workers have shifted up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The worker of 50 years ago (when Singapore first gained independence) was concerned about wages, annual leave and job security. The worker of today is better educated and has his basic needs of food and shelter taken care of. He may already enjoy an acceptable pay, 14 days of annual leave with medical benefits, and confident he can negotiate for future pay raises and promotions.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

What he aspires for are work-life balance, a job with a cause, a compassionate workplace, skills upgrading and opportunities to excel.

These workers are more likely to join associations which offer networking and learning opportunities. If he doesn’t see value in joining the union, the union membership will decline.

How are unions addressing these threats?

The vast majority of Singapore unions are affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Collectively with the NTUC social enterprises and other affiliated organisations, they form the Labour Movement.

Since 1968, when the Employment Act first came into force (to mandate basic employment rights and remove the unions’ right to negotiate the hiring, firing and retrenchment of employees), the Labour Movement has been looking for ways to stay relevant to workers.

Their combined efforts over the last 50 years can be summarised in 1 word: tripartism.

Tripartism in the Singapore context means that the Labour Movement, employers and government actively talk to one another, share their concerns and adopt a common stand with the long term future of Singapore in mind. Even Guy Ryder, the head of the UN International Labour Foundation had good things to say about Singapore’s tripartism.

Besides tripartism, the Labour Movement is evolving to reach out to PMEs, freelancers, migrant workers, HR professionals and SMEs.

By being actively involved in this social dialogue, unions have and will continue to play an integral role in policy-making (such as wage policies), economic transformation and preparing Singapore workers for the years ahead.

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