The crushing of trade unions and workers’ woes Part 1

Jagwinder Singh

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines a trade union as “an organisation that represents the people who work in a particular industry, protects their rights and discusses their pay and working conditions with employers.”

In Singapore however, the Trade Unions Act clearly defines a trade union as “any association of workmen or employers, whether temporary or permanent, whose principal objective is to regulate relations between workmen and employers for all or any of the following reasons:

  1. To promote good industrial relations between workers and employers;
  2. To improve the working conditions of workmen or enhance their economic and social statuses;
  3. To achieve the raising of productivity for the benefit of workmen, employers and the economy of Singapore.

The Act contradicts the meaning in the dictionary by including employers in a trade union. It is further supported by the sole trade union centre in Singapore, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), having three employers’ associations under its umbrella of 61 affiliated unions.

To make a further mockery of the dictionary definition of a trade union, a cabinet minister helms the union congress as its secretary-general, albeit in a personal capacity. The NTUC clearly goes against the Trade Unions Act by stating that it is a tripartite alliance of workmen, employers and the Government.

The NTUC has backed the so-called success of such an organization by claiming it as “the driving force behind Singapore’s economic and social development.”

Not quite the social accord if we read the statistics. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s website, the latest statistics regarding unionised trade disputes show that in 2009, there were 187 such disputes referred for conciliation, a sharp increase from 103 in 2008.

The bulk of these were caused by issues regarding wages and conditions of benefit, retrenchment benefits, bonus and gratuity issues, and other industrial matters such as sales commissions and shift allocations.

To make matters worse, there were also five unionized trade disputes that were referred for arbitration, the highest number since 2005.

Union leaders and employers in Singapore serve on key institutions such as the National Wages Council (NWC), the Economic Development Board, the Central Provident Fund Board and the Singapore Productivity and Standards Board.
 Government and employer representatives also give the benefit of their experience to the labour movement, by serving on the boards of their cooperatives, business ventures and other organizations in the NTUC family.

A labour movement, technically, should be fully represented by employees. It defeats the purpose implicit in its name when we have Government and employer representatives in its ranks, as differences in views and objectives will arise, giving birth to internal conflicts, and nullifying the movement’s purpose.

Of course, the NTUC will refute such claims, as there are laws in place to deal with the discontentment of employees. For example, we have the Trade Disputes Act (Cap 331) that declares industrial action, strikes and lockouts under certain violent circumstances to be illegal, which is logical, in order to maintain law and order.

However, just when workers think that non-violent demonstrations, peaceful strikes or lock-downs are perfectly legitimate in expressing their protests, objections and emotions, another legislation comes in – Part 3 of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (Cap 67). It clearly states that police officers, personnel appointed by ministers, or even the armed forces may be deployed to deal with people holding banners, shouting slogans or disturbing public peace.

So workers who are allowed, prima facie, to carry out peaceful demonstrations, strikes and lock-downs under the Trade Disputes Act are caught by another law that criminalises public assembly, carrying of banners and recitation of slogans.

Political affiliations of union workers and leaders, besides those that support the ruling party, are also shunned upon, and severely dealt with.

In 1961 when Singapore was still under British rule, the late David Marshall, the first Chief Minister of our country called Singapore a tiga suku busuk merdeka (three-quarters rotten independence) state. At that time, the dominant Singapore Trades Union Congress split into two factions. One, a left-wing union, called the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, led by Lim Chin Siong and the Barisan Sosialis (BS); and the other union, NTUC, led by the pro–Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) faction.

Not long after, in 1963, the BS leadership, including union leaders like Jamit Singh who had previously gone door to door canvassing for PAP votes, along with students’ union leaders, newspaper editors, and other influential left-wing personalities accused of propagating communism were incarcerated in Operation Cold Store, under the controversial and internationally condemned Internal Security Act. Recently, declassified British documents have revealed that Lim Chin Siong was not a communist.

Almost 50 years later, as Singapore continues to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, alternative political participation by unionists under the NTUC is still frowned upon. In 2002, Muhammad Ali Amin, a branch chairman of the United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries, an affiliate of the NTUC, was expelled after he refused to resign over ties with the opposition.

Even the most passive form of disagreement, the one through vote, was not spared state interference when the Government amended the Trade Unions Act in 2003 in a bid to further restrict members’ rights after the Air Line Pilots’ Association-Singapore had voted to sack its entire leadership in light of controversial wage cuts imposed by the SIA.

Indeed, Singapore’s post-independence history is littered with clampdowns on workers’ rights and the dismantling of independent trade unions. In Part II, I will discuss ways to reform our labour movement.

Jagwinder Singh is a member of The Young Democrats.

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