Want Your Union To Have A Greater Say? Join Them

When news broke of the SMRT bus drivers’ strike last year, the first thought that came to mind was, “Oh no, when are they going to be arrested”?

Even before the MOM made a statement about the strike (which traditional media called “bus drivers did not turn up for work”) being illegal, I knew the authorities had to detain them under the Trade Unions Act and Trade Disputes Act.

The strike is still a political hot potato as many questions regarding the welfare of the drivers and the responsibilities of the employer (SMRT) are yet to be answered.

Then there was the role of the trade unions. It seems the drivers were not unionized, and were poorly educated and informed about their rights and obligations.

Even if they were, the unions would only have been able to negotiate on two things – living conditions and eligibility of pay adjustments. The third issue in the dispute – that of the wage difference between drivers of other nationalities, would have been out of the union’s scope as it was a contractual issue between the drivers (or the drivers’ agents) and the SMRT.

Of course, this feeds into the popular rumbling that industrial unions and the NTUC are toothless organizations, endemically incapable of fighting for workers’ rights.

Somewhere in there lies the truth that our labour laws have been developed over the last 40 years to offer so much statutory protection of employees that many of what people perceive to be the unions’ roles have been usurped.

Try not paying your workers’ CPF and salary for a bit and see how quickly the MOM comes down on you. OK, actually, don’t try this at all. It’s all hypothetical and I am not instigating anything, but lemme tell you, they are swifter than Taylor Swift.

It is an ongoing thing, and I think there are further changes afoot come tomorrow and July, when changes to the Employment Act will be made to benefit a greater spectrum of workers.

So where does this leave the workers’ unions and the NTUC? They are still there to facilitate good work practices, good work conditions, and continual improvement in skills of workers.

Say if you had a dispute with your employer regarding overtime pay conditions (like *ahem* when your boss said you were getting a pay hike but actually took away overtime and added Saturday to your work week… just sayin’…). If you had a union, you’d complain to your union representative, who’d then bring this up with the NTUC if your union was affiliated with the NTUC.

Strength in numbers comes into play in this instance, and the NTUC will take on your case with all its resources. While there’s a lot of focus on “tripartism” and “collective bargaining”, it has to be noted that there is still room for legal redress – the courts or the MOM can overturn a collective bargaining agreement if it deems it to be unfair to the worker under the law.

Tripartism’s objective in Singapore is for a stable labour market. Stringent labour laws and happy workers leads to a conducive environment for business, which leads to more jobs. And this is where the interesting thing I learned happens – a bottleneck occurs when jobs are many and labour is not enough.

When there are not enough workers, the MOM has to import (please, those in the F&B business can chime in here about how hard it is to get local labour), and when the MOM imports too many, wages are suppressed and businesses become dependent on cheap foreign labour.

The NTUC then pressures the MOM to reduce the imports so workers pay can be protected, but has to be mindful that the MOM has to placate businesses who are now looking at Iskandar because it’s nearby, labour and every frikkin’ thing is cheaper and the Malaysian government is offering tax perks.

OK, I don’t think I have done a good job at describing the not-so-merry-go-round, and I really need Mr Lim Swee Say’s marker pen and paper scribblings that describes the delicate balance all parties have to strike. But I think at least some of you get the picture.

If you think you can improve your own lot, or your colleagues’, or the welfare of low wage earners, the last things you should do is to kowpeh about how the Government doesn’t care, rail against the perceived foreigner-first outlook, then at the same time complain about how there are not enough locals who want to work in your cafe.

I urge all of you, if you are a salaried employee, to empower yourself by checking if you have a union for your trade. Even if there isn’t, become a member of the NTUC. There is a benefit far greater than any of the special offers, supermarket vouchers and discounts we have come to associate NTUC with.

You’ll give yourself a stronger voice in this tripartite triangle, and have a say in how things are supposed to work.

My Father And The Gangster Fella Lee Kuan Yew

I remember the story my father told me about the time he was a clerk in a bus company in Singapore. It was some time in the 1950s, and some of us will recall that these were troubled times.

I didn’t get much detail from the many times my father told and retold the story with much mirth and in gutteral Hainanese-accented English. But it always went something like this:

“I was working in the bus company lah, as an accounts clerk, keeping the books. Then one day this man came and kicked the door open like a gangster. He walked to my table and banged the table and shouted at me: Show me your books!

My manager said to me, ‘Young Mr Lee, please show the books to senior Mr Lee’.”

Wah, like a hooligan, the fella. I was scared. So I just show him the books, and he shouted here and there and I just followed his instructions”.

The fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee that he spoke about was Lee Kuan Yew, who was then a lawyer from Laycock & Ong, and was representing several trade and students’ unions.

The time that my father recounted might have been the one where the labour union movement and politics became indelibly intertwined – something which you could say is still the status quo, and something to which you might react by saying, “Ah, see lah! This NTUC is Gahmen what! How to help you?”

But before you kowpeh further about how Singapore is Uniquely like that, you may want to know that the same kind of history is shared with the Labour Party of the UK, the Australian Labor Party and many other countries where labour organisations have sought political representation.

The early history of the National Trades Union Congress makes for some exciting reading, but critics of the Government will quickly point out that the NTUC was forged from some iron-fisted politicking, as illustrated by Operation Coldstore.

Following the decade of unrest and violence which culminated in the Hock Lee Bus riots which left 4 people dead and crippled the city’s transport system, the Government enacted the Industrial Relations (Amendments) Act of 1968, severely limiting workers’ rights to strike.

Where did this leave the NTUC with its close ties to the ruling party? In its own words, it adopted a “cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers”.

This was crucial in the infancy of the newly independent country, and I along with many of my peers, know that it was this basic set up of cooperation which paved the way for direct foreign investment.

International companies started setting up factories in the newly cleared Jurong marshes, branch offices in the Robinson Road/Cecil Street/D’Almeida Street areas. And when I was old enough to listen to my father’s story of his encounter with Lee Kuan Yew, it was the 1970s, and we were on the cusp of this fantastic economic boom that propelled us past the rest of our Asian neighbours bar Japan.

This would not have been possible if the trade unions maintained an adversarial approach then. But you’d be right to point out that that’s just history, and you’d be right to ask how relevant the NTUC is in present climes. I’ll be helping you look for the answer.

Meantime, please enjoy this clip of the fella, the hooligan and the gangster senior Mr Lee not mincing words about some recalcitrant striking pilots.

Everyone Is Responsible For Fighting Dengue

Not the kind of boom you want

This year’s dengue outbreak is scary. So far this year, there’ve been 4,756 (1 Jan – 19 Apr) cases, and it looks like it might increase some more.

I’ve previously tweeted and posted on Facebook about this, and the reflex response from readers have been the same: “too much construction lah, it’s all in the construction sites”.

The NEA has reported that the majority of sites found to have bred mosquitoes have been homes. Now I’m not saying that the construction sites are not responsible at all, but the fact remains that no matter how much you want to blame someone else or some other site for the spread of this disease, the solution to breaking the vector cycle of is still firmly in your own hands.

Dengue is not an airborne transmitted disease – it is spread by the Aedes mosquito, which gets the virus from an infected person it stings. So the way to stopping the spread of the disease is to eradicate the breeding of the mosquito – which you will probably know, occurs in stagnant water.

The NEA has a dengue website at www.dengue.gov.sg with statistics and information pertaining to the disease. We’ve all seen in the papers news about the huge “cluster” of dengue in the one block in Tampines, and the dengue website has a map of “hotspots” as well.

This is both helpful and unhelpful, because while you are aware enough to avoid going to these hotspots for instance, you might downplay the fact that regardless of hotspots and clusters, people (the other vector) are mobile. They could get bitten, come back home to Toa Payoh, get bitten by another Aedes mosquito, and voila, another cluster and hotspot is created.

This outbreak has been so serious that the NEA has also implemented a Dengue Community Alert System, which displays three colour codes depending on the dengue situation, and the corresponding actions to take.

I hope you get the picture, and I appeal to everyone to “Do The Mozzie Wipeout”, a 5-step exercise to perform every day:

1. Change water in vases (on alternate days, if not daily)

2. Turn over all water storage containers so they don’t collect rainwater

3. Remove water from flower pot plates (on alternate days, if not daily)

4. Clear drainpipe blockages

5. Cover bamboo pole holders

The national anti-dengue campaign will be launched tomorrow (8am, 28 April) at Senja-Cashew Community Club, 101 Bukit Panjang Road. Do come if you can.

The NEA has also launched a new Facebook Page and they encourage people to follow @NEAsg on Twitter for dengue updates.

Again, I appeal to you to take action and not simply blame it on the construction sites. Naomi and I had a very serious close shave with Kai’s bout of dengue – and I will recount that ordeal in another blog post.

A #HealthyRivalry For The Ages

Over the years, Kin Mun (mrbrown) and myself have sort of egged each other on to do stuff. Some good, some dumbass.

When he used to work for an agency, he used to drive a car and didn’t get to exercise much. I took him to run at the NIE track twice a week, knocking the wind out of him each time while denying my own health by smoking a cigarette after each run.

Almost ten years and one major health scare each later, we’re still trying to nag each other into keeping healthy. Both of us don’t take any sugar in our drinks, and we haven’t had any soft drinks for years – in fact, I think if you made me drink a soda pop now, my eyeballs would pop out.

We’re both family men, and we get our kids to eat as healthily as possible too (though sometimes the stuff at kids’ parties can’t be avoided). I remember Kin Mun telling me: You need to get healthy cos you wanna be able to run after your kids when they’re able to run.

I used to play rugby in school and in my 20s – well enough to play for a club in the NSW suburban competition – but with changes in work environment, family commitments, sporting activity of any sort has dropped off my radar completely.

Up until last week. Naomi got me an introductory pilates session which eased me back into exercising. At first I thought, ah, chicken feed lah. How hard can some stretching be?

The answer is still biting me in every muscle group after two sessions. Boy am I unfit, and boy, do I have a long way to go before I catch up with my old friend who’s fit enough to cycle all over Italy.

I’ve also been on an alcohol fast for three weeks now, and as a friend who’s doing the same puts it, it’s been refreshing. I’m not as sluggish as I was, and two kilograms simply melted away in my first week.

So people, if you haven’t already done so, go online to http://bit.ly/HLIsgBM and collect as many rivals as you can – and make them do the index. The more of your friends/rivals complete the index, the higher you’ll jump up the leaderboard, which currently stands at a mere 42 rivals.

Come on, Facebookers of Singapore! You can do better than 42! You have a gazillion FB friends each! You’re giving up a chance of winning prizes, some more:

The prizes! The prizes!
The prizes! The prizes!

 

Cheaper Better Faster

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The Labour Movement should not let Lim Swee Say it himself. Not since the 1990s, when Goh Chok Tong spouted all manner of football analogies, has anyone generated so much interest over his own slogans and turns of phrases.

It’s been three and a half years since the NTUC’s Secretary-General first exhorted the country’s workers to be part of a Cheaper, Better, Faster (CBF*) economy, and I haven’t stopped hearing people talking about how the blardy gahmen wants to make them cheaper better and faster. It’s been detracting people from the real issues the NTUC and the MOM have been trying to tackle, and quite unfortunately a lot of people think this is how the NTUC has made its mark this last decade.

Actually, any slogan that starts with or has the word “cheap” or “cheaper” in it is asking for trouble: Courtesy is for Cheap. Cheap Better Best. Cheaper is Enough. You get the picture. It makes you want to go to Sim Lim Square and haggle with a salesman over an iPhone 5 knock-off.

Then a fortnight ago Mr Lim was quoted in the papers as saying that the country needed not only to “bite the bullet, not one, but three bullets”. I took it to mean the Cheaper Bullet, Better Bullet and Faster Bullet because I couldn’t find anything else in the article that explained what those bullets were and why they needed biting.

I was invited last month to a social media/bloggers’ dinner (catered by Smiling Orchid, no less) and briefing at NTUC Centre on One Marina Boulevard and learned about the (silver, supposedly) bullet that the NTUC didn’t want anyone to bite – A National Minimum Wage.

As we all know now, the purported rejection of Minimum Wage by the NTUC – announced by, of all people to announce it, the Sec-Gen himself, instigated a tirade against The NTUC,  Dis Gahmen and That Minister, which hasn’t shown signs of abating. The tirade generally goes along the lines of:

“WTF is this Progressive Wage Model? Dowan to pay people more just say so lah!”

I don’t know whether it’s because you can’t get the full picture on ST or if the glossy infographics on NTUC’s own online media just makes your eyes glaze over, but if you had looked hard at what Mr Lim Swee Say was saying, you’d realise that nobody is rejecting the Minimum Wage.

I support the view that if you were to introduce a mandatory minimum wage in any industry, at a level high enough to make any meaningful difference to real wages, you WILL see unemployment, and the lower income group will be the first to suffer as unemployment becomes institutionalized, as has been the case in every country with a national minimum wage.

The good thing for us is that NTUC has been working on a solution to what they see as a great social cost of economic growth. It’s a calibrated and adjustable solution, where wage increases are pegged to “job/skill productivity enhancements” which have been made easier through funding from other labour institutions.

If I could tell Lim Swee Say what to say to the public so that the NTUC gets a better rap, I’d tell him to call what he’s scribbled on the paper sheets the Minimum Wage Plus instead of Progressive Wage Model because it’d have sounded less like the PWM was a substitute for Minimum Wage.

I’d also ask him to tell the public that he really goes to the MOM to Kow Peh Kow Bu about protecting workers, and that under his watch, the NTUC has actually forced the MOM to make changes to the Employment Act.

I’d ask him to tell the press what he said to EDB when they asked him, “where am I going to get the money to fund your workers’ upgrading courses”?

I would ask him to go on record as having said, “Not my problem. You go and find the money or else you won’t have an economy to develop”. (ok I paraphrase a little but I think he said something to that effect).

I’d tell him to summon the blardy SPH’s and Mediacorp’s news outlets and tell them to print a statement that he wanted the economy that was CHEAPER THAN SILICON VALLEY, BETTER THAN CHINA and FASTER THAN KOREA BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A COMPETITIVE, HIGHLY SKILLED, ADAPTABLE AND INTELLIGENT WORK FORCE.

But what to do? People like to shoot them (with the bullets they’ve been asked to bite) whatever they do.

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*It is very unfortunate that the nation’s labour movement has kept an unintentional tradition of using dubious acronyms: CBF is what the NTUC which was formerly known as SFTU coined. (And they banned FCUK because it was suggestive, wah lao eh).