The long journey of our workers

Gandhi Ambalam
22 Aug 07

I was in a bus the other day heading towards the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh when the scrolling headlines on its mobile TV caught my eye: “Manpower Minister to head a tripartite delegation to ILO conference.”

But what puzzled me was the term “tripartite delegation” which referred to the team of representatives of the government, employers, and workers. It’s easy to speak, in Singapore’s context, of representatives from employers and the government. We all know who they are. But what about the workers?

In Singapore such representation comes in the form of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the country’s flagship trade union. But what exactly is the NTUC and who does it really represent?

The NTUC rose from the ashes of genuine, independent trade unions that were ruthlessly suppressed by the PAP soon after the party came to power. Ironically, Mr Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister on the backs of our workers and their unions in 1959.

Since its founding in 1961, the NTUC has been elevated to the position of an umbrella body for trade unions. PAP MPs are then appointed to head it, unabashedly calling themselves labour chiefs and union leaders. It has been the tradition for the NTUC secretary general to be a cabinet minister, drawing more than $2 million salary while our workers are denied even minimum wage.

In reality, however, the NTUC only maintains less than 20 per cent of our workers as members, leaving the majority unprotected. Its principal role is not to increase its membership base but to regulate the aspirations and expectations of our workers. In other words, keep the workers under constant subjugation to ensure that they don’t become an organized group.

For workers to form their own independent trade unions is an impossibility given the all-controlling PAP. As with many organizations in Singapore, the NTUC is put in place to represent the Government.

After Singapore became independent, PAP leaders, on the advice of a visiting Dutch economist, the late Dr Albert Winsemius, decided to open the country to foreign capital and turn the island republic into a base for export oriented industries with cheap labour, generous tax holidays and other incentives.

In order to attract these multinational corporations from the US, Europe and Japan, the Government embarked on a concerted effort to further stifle labour, bulldozing through legislation such as the Employment Act, the Industrial Relations Act and the Trade Unions Act in the 1960s.

These laws collectively became the employers’ charter, leaving the hiring and firing of workers entirely in the hands of employers with unions having no say. Strikes were outlawed. Numerous trade unionists were arrested under the Internal Security Act. One such leader was the late Ho Piao who recently passed away in London. Before he died Ho had recounted his ordeal under the hands of his PAP captors. He was savagely beaten by ISD officers and forced to submit to the PAP authority.

That’s amazing is that the PAP, despite the changing economic landscape, still insists on maintaining these archaic and draconian laws that provide blank cheques for the flagrant exploitation of our workers.

The increasing number of suicides, divorces, and homeless people is the result of decades of exploitation of our workers – voiceless workers. This is coupled with the record number of millionaires in Singapore, many of whom are not Singaporeans.

Employers have numerous organizations and business houses to put forward their interests to the Government. Expatriates recently complained about the sudden surge in rental prices. Within days, the Government took measures to cool the property sector.

But what about workers? How do they fight for their interests? After years for servitude, the Government announced that their employers’ CPF contributions would be cut. Recently Mr Lim Boon Heng, former NTUC chief, visited Japan and returned to tell workers that he found out that the Japanese were only allowed to withdraw their pension savings at 65. The implication? Singaporeans should do the same.

Like clockwork, the Government now wants the retirement age to be raised to 65. Then it raises the GST. And for good measure, it tells workers that they don’t have enough CPF for retirement and wants to make it compulsory for them to buy annuity to tide them threw their remaining years on this island.

So what can workers’ do? A big fat nothing. The “symbiotic” relationship that the NTUC has with the PAP Government makes sure of that.

As the bus came to a halt at the Toa Payoh Interchange my trip ended too. But my thoughts wandered back to our workers: When will the journey of their subjugation come to a close?

Mr Ambalam is Chairman of the Singapore Democrats. He is a former journalist.

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