We asked NTUC some hard questions about the future of work

By June 10, 2016Work

TL;DR – Unions Interrupted, Labour Movement Disrupted.

So, the Unscrambled team attended a bloggers’ tea session with Mr Vivek Kumar, Director of Membership at NTUC a few Fridays ago.

via Facebook

via Facebook/Vivek

Actually, Vivek’s a man who wears many hats. Check out his full title.

Vivek Kumar
Director (NTUC Membership, U Associates, U Creative, U Startups & U Future Leaders)

U Associates
This is an eco-system of over 30 professional guilds across 20 professions and industries.

U Creative
This community serves as a platform for exchange of ideas and networking with fellow creative professionals. NTUC is involved in Masterclasses, networking & advocacy for creative media professionals.

U Startups
A relatively new initiative that is still work-in-progress, the Labour Movement wants to work with this part of our economy that is growing exponentially today. The number of startups doubled from 23,000 (2004) to 55,000 (2014).

U Future Leaders
This is all about organising programmes and activities on developing future-ready leaders, including helping us gain an edge with seminars and mentorship sessions with C-suite leaders.

A Friday Afternoon Story

via Vivek Kumar/NTUC

via Vivek Kumar/NTUC


On that Friday afternoon, Vivek shared with us how the global transformation and the digitalisation of everything have changed work and future work. So much has changed over the last decade. The way we do banking has changed, the way we book our holidays has changed, practically everything has changed. And what about the consequences of the sharing economy?


The Age of Disruption is here

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), business models are getting impacted globally. We were already feeling the impact pre-2015, but the effects of disruption became sharply pronounced these few years and WEF predicted that the full effects will be felt everywhere come 2018 and beyond..

via WEF

via WEF


So we sat down with Vivek to ask him some hard questions about the future of work and workers, and also if the Labour Movement is still relevant, or how it is also disrupting itself.

US: A lot of people are talking about the transformation of our economy, and how it’s an era of ‘we have to disrupt or risk being disrupted’.

What are your thoughts on this?

Vivek: You know how parents like to tell their kids they have to study, they have to learn new things? It’s funny how we adults don’t take our own advice.

We graduate from school, start working, and expect our diploma or degree to last us for the rest of our lives. Fact is, things change and we really have to learn new things! We cannot expect whatever we’ve learnt 10 years ago to still be relevant and get us far in our jobs for another 10 years, right?

US: How important is mindset change in this Age of Disruption?

Vivek: This is an issue of the Harvard Business Review, just a couple of issues ago, and this is the latest manpower group survey. In Europe, Middle East and Africa, they are unable to fill 25% of the roles, because they can’t find people with the right leadership skills and soft skills. When it goes to North America, that becomes one-third. When it comes to Asia Pacific, that is more than half.

via Vivek/NTUC

via Vivek/NTUC


So, this is quite telling. This is a poll by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and it talks about the fact how difficult it is to find the right employees who will not get stifled by ambiguity, but will jump at it. They will say, “Wow! This is so fantastic! I don’t know what I am going to do tomorrow! And that is just so exciting for me to be doing this job.”

Most of us are going to have a very different reaction. “My boss never give me a very well-defined job description. How do you expect me to do this job?”

So that’s a mindset shift that we all need to make. If we can do it, of course. The reality is, there are more opportunities being a Singaporean than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

And here’s a snapshot of what type of workers would be in hot demand,

via Vivek/NTUC

via Vivek/NTUC


US: So you’re saying despite all the talk about the economic slowdown and retrenchment news, there are still jobs?

Vivek: If we look at the number of jobs created for every job that we’ve lost. If one is in a country like Mexico, it is not too bad. If you’re in a country like Brazil, it does not look very good. If you’re in Germany, the number of jobs displaced is likely to be more than the number of jobs created.

Look at ASEAN, for every job that we’ve lost here, there will be more than three jobs that will be created.

via WEF

via WEF


US: ASEAN consists of quite a few countries, would you say that certain countries are holding the bulk of the job creation? For example, in ASEAN, Vietnam is dong very well because of its start-up sector.

Where does Singapore actually stand?

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Vivek: My sense is that it is going to be quite linked to economic transformation. Therefore, one of the other pieces (of information) that I’ve put here is the start-up ecosystem that the Government has put a fair amount of investment in, and that is actually growing. So it is interesting that in the start-up ecosystem, there are about 55,000 start-ups in Singapore today. And they employ 345,000 professionals.

So if you realize, if that trend continues, it therefore means that if I lost my job in retail, and then I can get a job in an e-commerce engine, for example, or for someone who is developing a hub in Singapore for the region to deliver the e-commerce competency, whether it is big data analytics, whether it is AI development, whether it is any of the higher-end services, then I’ve got a job and I’m alright.

US: If you have the skills.

Vivek: Yes, if you have the skills, absolutely. And that’s where the whole conversation about skillset is actually very important.

US: When the workforce and the workplace are going to get disrupted, how is the labour movement preparing itself to help our people, the workers?

via Vivek/NTUC

via Vivek/NTUC


Vivek: People have always thought of unions as the ones who only look after the rank-and-file workers. In Singapore, people may not always appreciate or realize it, but we have got almost 300,000 of our members who are PMEs. So how do we ensure that apart from helping them with the FairPrice rebates and discounts, NTUC Income, we can also help them in other ways. That is how the whole concept of the Unusual Labour Movement came about.

We have tried to pool together everything we are doing, in terms of trying to create services that are relevant to the PMEs.

So now, is this all? The answer is absolutely NOT. This is just the starting point. We are trying to find different areas where we can add on.

When we started in 1961, we only had the unions. Traditional unions as we know them. And that happened till 2011 when our reach-out to the professional guilds started. We got our outreach programmes like the Future Leaders Summit, the PME Week, etc. We also have the U Creative, U Startup, which are targeting at very specific communities of PMEs. We have U Circle of Friends which are essentially the employers. When we talk to them, they help us understand what is changing, what is coming up, so that we can prepare PMEs for that.

There are a couple of things that are not here on these slides. There is the U SME programme that has started, and now there are almost 3,000 SMEs connected to us through the programme.

And we’ve got also the U FSE, the Freelancers and Self-employed Unit. I would say that we perhaps have the largest professional network in Singapore because we have the largest number of professional guilds with us.

US: So the disrupted Labour Movement is really about a growing network?

Vivek: The beauty of the Labour Movement is that you could be member of one union, but you’re connected to the whole Labour Movement ecosystem.

When you’re affected in one industry, we are there to help you. We recognise that it may not mean that if you are displaced in the oil and gas industry tomorrow, you could be joining e-commerce. But if you are displaced in the oil and gas industry, will there be an adjacent industry that you could be moving into? For example, sustainable energy. We know that it is going to be a significant source of jobs in the future, can we upskill workers enough to move to an adjacent industry to be a useful and positive contributor?

Now there are a couple of things that we are doing. We have the U Associate ecosystem, so we have got good ground intelligence now. One of the 32 U Associates is the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore. We are working with them to organise clinics and sectoral development programmes, so that if I’m in the oil and gas industry today and want to move into sustainable energy, I’ve something to go through.

The second thing that the Labour Movement has announced on May Day is that NTUC is putting together an ecosystem of 500 adjunct career coaches. We realise that it is very important that we have career coaches who are still cued in that profession, so that when I come and advise you, I am doing it from experience and what is coming up. This group of adjunct career coaches, which will be managed by e2i, is going to be quite helpful. So that if I am in the sector that is going through a big disruption, and it doesn’t have a way forward when it comes to my job, I can go meet a career coach which is from an adjacent industry or from an industry that I want to get into, and have good advice on what kind of training I have to go through, the kind of jobs I can be connected into.

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And then there is a whole range of programmes such as Place and Train and so on, where the risk for the company to take you in as a worker, while you’re going through a learning curve, is minimised by the common grants while we are still training you.

So, the programmes are there, the Labour Movement is trying to create the bridges. Whether it’s the U Associate sectoral plans with the different U Associates or the adjunct e2i career coaches, we’re trying to create those connections so that people are not feeling lost.

US: We noticed that NTUC had previously arranged a session for the Fintech startups to meet with banks and other industry players. You’ve called it a jamming session. So why is a labour movement doing something like that?

Are you helping the startups, or are you helping workers who work in the startups?

Vivek: There are two reasons why we’re working with the startups. The first reason is the startups themselves. If you look at one of the studies that came out in Channelnewsasia, they asked students what their dream career would be. Maybe it’s the Mark Zuckerberg effect, or the other technopreneurs. Entrepreneurship came in top three of who they want to become. As a Labour Movement, we have defined our scope as ‘all the working people’. Working people means you collect or make a certain sum of money for work that you do. And if our next generation wants to become entrepreneurs, who is to say we should not support them? So that’s the first reason.

It is not easy being an entrepreneur, or a technopreneur. There’re a number of challenges they face. Not enough people. Not enough money, that one we cannot help lah, we’re Labour Movement (chuckles). But not enough people, we can help. Not enough customers, maybe we can also help. Because we have 900,000 members, and another 200,000 in our networks. That’s a large enough number for any entrepreneur. We’ve got 1,600 unionised companies, another 3,000 SMEs, so maybe we can help.

Then there’s a second part. When these startups begin to grow, they grow very fast. They scale up very fast. Just look at Garena, which is one of our U Circle partners. So these startup scale up and they have got these Singaporean PMEs working there, we would want to work with these startup management as a new labour relationship. This is to ensure that the Singaporeans working there continue to progress and grow, and get the right opportunities. So we think now is the time to begin working with them.

US: How does the Labour Movement speak up for workers’ rights? Does NTUC keep quiet and keep low profile?

Vivek: I must say we’re not very quiet when it comes to championing for our workers’ rights. When we do negotiate with our HR partners, they know this that if we have strong enough reasons to push for our workers’ rights, we are going to be very vocal about it.

Not in a way that spills onto the streets. At the national level, the reason we have our Labour MPs in Parliament, it’s because they will then pick up the areas that we must push for the right move in Parliament.

A good example for PMEs, because I think it’s closer to the hearts of the people in this room now. Take the Fair Consideration Framework. I still remember that Brother Patrick Tay… There was a U Association signing in 2011 where he went and made a call for it, to ensure that our PMEs’ interests are well taken care of. Brother Patrick Tay called for the Fair Consideration Framework in Parliament. And it was rolled out.

Brother Zainal has been pushing for the Progressive Wage Model. It has started in the cleaning sector, the security sector and it is going to expand.

So you’re right, there are certain areas somebody has to speak up for the workers’ rights. Whether individually, at the company level or nationally, the Labour Movement is going to be vocal about it. There is no doubt about it.

US: What happens if companies do not want to work with the Labour Movement?

Vivek: There are a few ways the workers can seek help from us. One of those is that if they are in a unionised company, then the union can represent them.

If they’re not working in a unionised company, then there is the tripartite mediation framework, under which you have the Labour Movement, SNEF (Singapore National Employers Federation) and MOM (Ministry of Manpower). All three parties can sit down together under the tripartite mediation framework.

Then we have our U PME Centres. One is here (Raffles Place), and one is at e2i (Jurong East). And we’ve helped almost 1,500 PMEs who have come to us for different needs. Some of them are for placement (getting jobs after being displaced), some for Progression (attending training programmes) and some for Protection. And when they come to us for those kinds of cases, we do take up their cases to establish contact with the companies and try to work with them.

Ya, so it takes multiple approaches to ensure that, as far as our members are concerned, we are there.

The best way, however, is to ensure that the company is unionised, and therefore there is someone from the company who is representing the interests of the workers as the union branch leader.

It does take us some time to convince companies, but many of them do come onboard. After a while, the companies began to realise that we are unlike unions elsewhere. We are as keen on the companies being successful. Because if the companies are not successful, our workers will not get the right wages, or the right pay raise and they won’t have stable jobs. Once that understanding begins to sink in, then there is better conversation.

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Of course, in a couple of cases every year, we will have secret ballots. There has a provision for secret ballots. So we can go to a company, if the management does not agree to be unionised, we can always have a secret ballot among the employees and they can choose whether they want to form a union or not. That happens as well. But that’s the minority, a small minority.

For most of the cases, the management is able to see the value in working together with us.

US: What about the Pay-per-use vs Pay-per-month model that we’ve read in some news articles?

What’s that all about?

Vivek: Today our only model is our $9/month membership fee model, and we do try our best to provide our members with a very holistic suite of services. So whether you’re going to Fairprice, and you’re earning some $300 of rebates and discounts, or if you training assistance, and you have the UTAP $250 training grant every year. All these are packaged very nicely and delivered to our members at $9 per month.

Looking forward, we want to address the fact that the different needs of different groups of working people. For instance, my needs could be quite different if, say, I’m someone trying to move into the Sustainable Energy industry and that’s the only thing I’m interested in. Moving forward, we will not say ‘No, you can’t do that through Labour Movement’. You can still do that. You can go through the Sustainable Energy of Singapore programme, and it will be made available to you for a fee. And of course, that fee will be higher than what a union member will pay. That’s alright with us, if that’s what you’re looking for. So that’s the Pay-per-Month versus the Pay-per-Use model in very simple terms.

Does this mean that we will unbundle all of our services under the $9 monthly fee model? No, I don’t think so, because we’re not just talking about existing services, we’re talking about new services as the workforce evolves. This is something that we’re working towards.

US: Any parting words for our readers?

Vivek: So if I could just summarise this, as an Unusual Labour Movement, what we aim to do is a few things. First is we don’t believe in just confrontation for confrontation’s sake. We believe in collaboration, so long as that helps our working people. Second is that we’re willing to experiment with our services models on what we can offer that is relevant to the working people and the evolving workforce of Singapore. The third is the #BeMore campaign we’ve developed. It is more about the mindset and the fact that we all need to be ready for the disruptive future that is coming upon us.

If I could share with you one statistic that’s interesting to me, coz my child is going to primary school next year. The statistics say that for us whose children are joining the primary school cohort today, 65% of them will be doing jobs that do not even exist today. That’s the rate of transformation.

We need to change our mindset to embrace these opportunities, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do justice to our capabilities and our potential. And that’s where the whole #BeMore campaign is positioned. We all have to be more. As the Labour Movement, we need to be more. As working people, as PMEs, we also need to be more.

(Featured image via Youtube/Hubforum)


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The Editor

Author The Editor

Either busy trying to save the world, or poking my nose into other people's affairs.

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