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.