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5 Things You Should Know about Trade Unions in Singapore

5 Things You Should Know about Trade Unions in Singapore

Unless you’re living under a rock, there is no way you haven’t heard or read about Minister Chan Chun Sing joining NTUC as the Deputy Secretary-General.

chan wefie

Minister Chan Chun Sing will be standing for NTUC’s internal elections at the National Delegates Conference come October 2015, and he stands to be the next labour chief if he wins the union elections.


In probably a long, long time ever, a Labour Movement related topic actually trended on Google.

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Since this is such a hot topic, we’ve put together 5 things you should know about trade unions in Singapore. Here we go!

1. What?!!! There are 60 trade unions in Singapore?

Yes! There are about 60(!) trade unions in Singapore. Here are some of them:

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Click Here  to check the sorting hat to see which house you belong to *ANY HARRY POTTER FANS?

2. So what exactly is a trade union?

Well, the Trade Unions Act defines a trade union as any association or combination 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 purposes:

  1. To promote good industrial relations between workmen and employers;

To improve the working conditions of workmen or enhance their economic and social status; or

To achieve the raising of productivity for the benefit of workmen, employers and the economy of Singapore.

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Yea, yea, we know, that was a very boring definition YAWNS

In other words, a trade union is an organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

3. What about NTUC? Is NTUC a union too?

Nope, NTUC, which stands for the National Trades Union Congress, is NOT a union.

It is also not just a supermarket (that’s Fairprice), nor is it just an insurance company (that’s Income). Nope, not just a pharmacy either.

It’s also not a government agency, OK?

NTUC is a federation of trade unions, meaning it is a ‘collection’ of trade unions and it represents trade unions and associations that wish to be affiliated with it. Unity is strength and when you’re big in numbers, you can speak more loudly too.

4. Why are there no strikes in Singapore?

We sometimes read about foreign trade unions going on strike when their negotiations come to deadlock. But the important thing to note is that a strike is a weapon of the last resort, something that trade unions use when everything else has failed. Sometimes it’s because they cannot get the employers to sit down and negotiate, sometimes it’s because (labour) replacement cost is low, and the employers are not at all pressured by the workers’ demands.

Stoppage to work usually means disruption to service, and if in serious cases that involve public services, strikes can be incredibly disruptive to everyday life.

Just start imagining if the MRT staff and bus captains were to go on strike. What about teachers? Doctors and nurses at public hospitals? Scary thought, no?

Don’t think it doesn’t affect you. Did you read about how MCDONALDS IN JAPAN HAD TO RATION ITS FRENCH FRIES last month? And now KFC in Japan has also run out of potato chips. All these because of the protracted strike of the dock workers in the US West Coast.

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So don’t you go romanticizing the notion of strikes. It’s really terribly, terribly inconvenient.

More importantly, what good is a trade union if it cannot even get the employers to sit down at the negotiation table? What good is a trade union if it has to lead the workers to strike just so that the management will even listen?

5. Are unions toothless?

Trade unions represent the workers, and so long as the workers’ interests are taken care of, the trade unions have no reason to go against any policies that are pro- Singapore, or even pro-business.

That said, NTUC has been seen from time to time shaming the government if the government does wrong, or make decisions that are not pro-workers. Click here for an example of how Labour MP Heng Chee how chided the public sector for poor pay.

What about this one? Did you know that Labour Chief Lim Swee Say had once made a threat of disassociation to the PAP? And, did you also know that Ong Teng Cheong once commissioned a strike? (FYI President Ong was once the Sec-Gen of the NTUC).

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Other than going against the government, NTUC also takes employers to task when necessary. Instead of resorting to strikes, NTUC has another weapon of last resort: the Industrial Arbitration Court. It is more conciliatory than it is adversarial. It is less disruptive too. Parties in such a court has better chance to carry on a working relationship rather than one that has experienced something as hostile as a strike action.

Don’t take our word for it. We’ve done the research, Click for a list of awards made out to unions made out by the IAC.

One other important point to note is that NTUC’s secretary-general is always a cabinet minister. There also labour MPs in Parliament to help champion for workers’ rights. Socio-political blog Five Stars and a Moon has recently published an interesting piece that addressed the issue of WHAT IS A LABOUR CHIEF DOING IN CABINET?

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The writer advocates that just because you don’t see them ‘fighting’ or ‘striking’ doesn’t mean trade unions don’t exist, and doesn’t mean trade unions are toothless. What do you think?

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that  CHAN CHUN SING, HE WHO HAD WANTED TO BE A LIBRARIAN would strengthen labour relations leadership and do more for the collective good of the workers in Singapore.

Deensy Yew

Freelance Writer

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