May Day Rally 2014

Having missed last year’s event because I made like many other Singaporeans and downed tools for the long weekend, I was invited to my first May Day Rally on Thursday, and came away impressed with the candour of the labour leaders, and slightly disappointed with the lack of awareness of the same.

With Cheaper, Better, Faster having earned its place in ridiculed slogan folklore, what could the union leaders have come up with that would better that? What new initiatives would be launched and trumpeted?

I spoke with several other people at the rally and they intimated that the labour movement was going to move away from the hard sell of the Progressive Wage Model of the past two years, and towards a recognition of the employer, the worker, and the buyer (customer) for this year’s rally.

The venue for this year’s event was also significant. Honouring NTUC’s first Secretary-General (and lest we forget, the country’s third Head of State), the new Employment & Employability Institute (e2i) is named the Devan Nair Institute, and was officially opened at the start of the rally by the Prime Minister.

When the seminar hall was filled to capacity and the rest of the attendees packed into spillover rooms with live video feeds, the event started proper with a song and dance item (“Happy” and the very popular “Ayam Titanium”), and rousing speeches by leaders of several unions.

Then came this Singaporean Of The Day inspired video featuring rank and file workers:

  • Mohamed Ishak Bin Mohamed Noor, SMRT Assistant Engineer
  • Lim Chee Kiang, PSA Container Equipment Specialist (Quay Crane)
  • T. Manimaran, SembWaste Senior Driver
  • Raymond Ong, ComfortDelGro Taxi Driver
  • Ang Boon Ho, Seiko Instruments Singapore Assistant Supervisor

The workers featured in the video were seated front row (not centre – that’s for the Ministers) and were introduced to loud cheers from their colleagues and fellow union members. For me, that was what I thought the event was about. Honouring union members, honouring workers.

The Prime Minister’s address followed this path, but at the same time sounded a warning for complacency and for those who still think that the sole problem lies in letting in cheap foreign labour – your jobs will get “stolen” by people who don’t even have to move here to do it.

And there’s the second focus of the rally – the employer. I think that many Singapore companies are caught in what a friend of mine calls the “Stuck Tarzan Mode” – having caught the next vine to move forward but not wanting to let go of the one he’s just swung from.

Our economy will face competition from people who can not only do things cheaper, they’ll do it faster, and they might do it better. Sound familiar? The Prime Minister mentioned our private transport industry being challenged by technology companies who smartly skirt the obstacles of the transport business by making apps – like Uber (use my code “ubermiyagi” and get $10 off your first ride, hehe) – and with the leaps and bounds being made by 3D printing – soon, who’s going to need you to build and ship things to the customer abroad any more?

It is with these challenges that makes it more alarming that many SME’s do not innovate or don’t know how to. For example: Why are auditors still insisting on paper receipts that would anyway fade and be illegible? Why are banks (or the MAS) not working on solutions for third party accounting software to connect to customer data when it is much easier to forge a cheque than it is to obfuscate an electronic trail?

We cannot afford to fall behind, and I will smack the next government agency officer that asks me to fax some letter when they can jolly well read an email attachment. Yes, I can e-slap you. I have an app.

Before I froth at the mouth at these annoyances, let me get back to the PM’s address. I am encouraged that there are serious measures to ensure the re-employability of older workers. I’m quite sure that at this very mention, there’ll be conspiracy theorists banging their drums about how this gahmen simply doesn’t want us to collect our CPF.

But the reality is this – ask any aged 30-something couple raising a young family and having to look after their parents and you’ll discover that the CPF wasn’t initially calculated to look after an aging population with an increasing life expectancy. The older folk need to work and the important thing is that we enable them to.

The other thing that struck me was the current NTUC Secretary-General’s candour. I don’t care what people say, I really like this man and his life-long passion for making workers’ lives better.

In his opening address (which involved a few miscues with the event’s run-down), he said something about Singapore ‘not being zero-defect’, but that we’d be judged on how we reacted to the mistakes and fixed them.

Mr Lim Swee Say has been tireless ever since he was appointed Secretary-General (SG) of NTUC. The number of financial grants and rebates available to the backbone of the economy – the SMEs – are a result of his harassing and haranguing the various ministries and agencies over the decades.

But he has not been above admitting when things aren’t going as smoothly. I recall a talk last year where he talked about how heading the labour movement was a constant task of moving bottlenecks around the workforce when he realised cheap labour was becoming an undesirable opiate of construction companies.

There are others like the SG in the movement – the head of the e2i himself, of as a friend calls him, The Other Gilbert, constantly tweaking and improving schemes to help the rank and file workers.

Therein lies the rub. There are still things that can be done better.

I believe the labour movement can be more inclusive, get everyone involved, not just the converted, because you can still continue get them excited about the rally by giving out polo shirts in four different but bright colours, you can still make them sing the NTUC theme song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of The Republic, and give out energy bands with the word “Better” printed on them because this year it’s about Better Employers, Better Workers and Better Customers.

This Blog Has Been Rallied

I’m a bit excited about this blog being highlighted (at around the 28-minute mark of the video) at an NTUC May Day Rally. Never in a million years would I have thunk it. Seriously. My friends are making fun of me.

If you’re at all interested in the rest of the rally – do watch the clip. It may just help you understand a bit more about industrial relations in Singapore, or at the very least, give you a more informed reason to protest against the current state of affairs.

Don’t worry, this video can pause as and when you like, and allow you to come back and continue watching at your convenience. Don’t just simply rely on the usual news outlet soundbites.

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.