Fixing Low Wages: Buck Also Stops At Employers’

Out of curiosity, I attended the Ordinary Delegates’ Conference of the National Trades Union Congress at Far Far Away Country Club (Orchid Country Club) on Tuesday.

As with many things to do with Singapore, there’s little pomp and ceremony to do with these things if you were to compare with our neighbouring countries: it is said that the world stands still when a Malaysian minister attends the opening of an umbrella.

There was still some ritual involved – calling the conference to order and declaring quorum and all that. But I was a bit disappointed to discover that union leaders were now addressing each other as “brother” and “sister”, much like a mega-church congregation, rather than the historically more significant and gender-neutral “comrade”.

OK enough of my frivolity and nongsern. More serious reactions to what was said at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates’ Conference by Ministers and union leaders were predictably swift.

Most of the complaints come from people who are not convinced that the government is making efforts to improve the lot of lower wage workers primarily because they feel that low-wages were made endemic by policies of the same government which were intended to fix a critical labour shortage.

Tripartism – a term often bandied about by the labour movement – refers to the workings of the unions, the government and employers in concert.

I don’t think there’s any other jurisdiction in the world where it’s been so effective for so long. But tripartism is only as effective as the weakest link.

With unions pushing for better wages through Progressive Wage Model and the government handing out subsidies, the slack seems to be appearing in the third partner’s hands. Sadly it is the employers who are directly in control of workers’ wages.

Still, it is helpful to note that attempting to achieve equilibrium between the labour market and the economic and social health of the nation is always going to be a fluid task that never ends. That’s why I’m thankful for those among our leaders who are able to recognise bottlenecks as they appear, have the political will and ability to make running repairs while attempting to define and crystallise the will of the people.