May Day 2017 reveals five unusual things about Singapore’s Labour Movement

By May 2, 2017Current

TL;DR – Mayday Mayday Mayday!

“Mayday Mayday Mayday!” is an emergency procedure word used internationally as a distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It is often used when in rather disastrous situations. Like when a plane is about to crash, or a ship is about to sink. Or when a country’s economy is tanking.

But thankfully, this May Day, Singapore needn’t use “Mayday” that way.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his speech at this year’s May Day Rally, we celebrate May Day in a cautious but better mood than last year. The global economy looks to picking up. IMF expects global economic growth to come in at about 3.5%. As for Singapore, PM Lee said that there is a good chance that our growth will exceed last year’s 2%.

That said, we should expect sharper economic cycles. That is different from the norm that we were used to. In the past, we can expect economic growth to be about 4%. Maybe higher or lower by 1%. But now, we should expect economic growth to be about 2%, but may go up as high as 7% or may be as bad as a contraction of 3%. That is the warning the Secretary-General of NTUC, Chan Chun Sing, gave.

The labour chief, also Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, highlighted that this new normal will bring its own set of challenges. Workers can no longer assume one or two jobs will carry them through their entire careers. Instead, they will need to get used to transiting between different careers, and between industries.

To help Singapore’s workers manage those transitions, Singapore’s labour movement will have to do something rather unusual. It will have to work closely with the government and employers. That is most unusual, given that most labour movements the world over have an antagonistic relationship with the government and employers.

But that’s not all. In this year’s May Day Rally, both PM Lee and Mr Chan highlighted five unusual things that Singapore’s Labour Movement is doing to help our workers.

1. The Labour Movement is helping Singapore create jobs

One key way that jobs are created in Singapore is by bringing in new businesses and investments. EDB has been working hard to get MNCs to invest in Singapore. And even in this highly competitive global market, where other people are also fast catching up, EDB has been successful.

In electronics, Micron has invested $5.4 billion in Singapore to expand its wafer fabrication plant in Singapore. That added 500 jobs. In ICT, Google has opened its new campus at Mapletree Business City. It now houses 1,000 Googlers. In the chemical industry, Evonik broke ground for their second plant on Jurong Island. That is a $800 million investment that will create 150 jobs.

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Why would these companies choose to invest in Singapore, and expand their operations here, even though costs are higher here compared to other countries in the region? It’s our social cohesion and industrial peace is our unique competitive advantage. That, as Chan had explained, is our unique competitive advantage that allows us to continue attracting investments despite our higher costs.

It’s not usual that a Labour Movement helps a country create jobs.

2. The Labour Movement helps workers find replacement jobs

Technology is disrupting the way things are being done. As a result, there will be a sizeable number of workers who will lose their jobs as a result of technological disruption. We therefore need to help workers who lose their jobs find alternative jobs. Especially the PMETs.

The Labour Movement, with its extensive network, can help.

PM Lee illustrated that with the example of what’s happening in the offshore and marine industry. That industry is experiencing tough times now. With oil prices persistently low, drilling has stopped. As a result, orders for drilling rigs have been delayed, or cancelled. For the last two years, there are no new orders. This has resulted in many jobs lost.

From the last peak, the industry has lost about 30,000 jobs. Foreign workers were the first to be let go, so our own workers did not bear the brunt of the redundancies. But some local workers have also been affected. Last year, about 1,000 local workers in the offshore and marine sector lost their jobs. This year, we are looking at another few hundred.

These people won’t find it easy to find replacement jobs in the same sector. But other sectors like the Transport and Aviation industries are growing, and need workers with similar skills. So the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (SISEU) and the Institute of Engineers in Singapore (IES) are working with the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees’ Union (SMEEU) to organise job fairs to help affected workers from the offshore and marine sectors find new jobs in transport and aerospace engineering.

Unions elsewhere don’t think about how to help jobless people get jobs. That’s another thing that’s unusual about Singapore’s labour movement.

3. The Labour Movement is helping workers grow in jobs

Workers in other countries are hungry. They know they need to keep on learning to keep their rice bowls. Even workers in a second-tier city like Chengdu are upgrading themselves. Smart cities are sprouting up in Chengdu. Those aren’t sweat shops. Instead, one worker oversees some 20 machines, troubleshooting when necessary.

The Chinese workers live in dorms. They work hard in the day. At night and in their spare time, they log on to their accounts and do e-learning. Not all are well educated, but many have Six Sigma Black Belt certification. As PM Lee said:

“If we think that we do not have to push ourselves further, that we do not have to work hard, we are kidding ourselves.”

Watch this video of how union leaders shared with PM Lee their takeaways from a recent learning journey to two smart factories in Chengdu, China.


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To help workers upgrade themselves, Singapore has done much work to establish the SkillsFuture initiative. The Labour Movement is playing its part in the initiative. The NTUC Education and Training Fund (NETF) has raised $25 million to catalyse new learning and training pedagogies. With the Government matching $3 for every $1 that NTUC raised, the fund now stands at $100 million.

It aims to work with industries and the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to develop just-in-time training.The training can range from full-fledged courses, to stackable modules, and even gamified bite-sized training.

Which other labour movement is thinking about helping their workers train and improve their skills so that they can grow in their jobs? Probably not many. Maybe only Singapore’s unusual labour movement.

4. The Labour Movement is helping industries transform

For the sake of our workers, our economy must transform. At the heart of this effort to transform our economy are the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs). There are currently 23 ITMs, covering 80% of our economy. Each ITM focuses on specific things we can do in each industry, coming up with well-thought-out plans to upgrade and improve.

But for the ITMs to work, everyone will have to play his part. Employers must invest in technology and training of workers. The government needs to support companies to adopt new technology and workers to get training. The unions too must play their part. They must work with employers, identify where the new jobs will be and help encourage workers to get new skills. Unity will be key to the successful transformation of our economy.

In other words, the ITMs will only work if there is real tripartite effort. That the labour movement in Singapore is committed to helping industries successfully transform is something few, if any, other labour movements in the world would do.

5. The Labour Chief is in the core of Singapore’s next generation leadership

Last year, Singapore set up the Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity (CSIP). It is a tripartite council that was chaired by DPM Tharman. Since then, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) has completed its report. Now we need to implement the CFE’s recommendations to make the transformation of Singapore’s economy happen.

To implement the CFE’s recommendations and take the work of the CSIP further, PM Lee announced that the CSIP will be renamed the Future Economy Council.

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Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will take over from DPM Tharman as chair of the Council. Minister Heng will work with Ministers Iswaran, Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong, and other ministers, especially the younger ones.

It is a deep transformation that will extend beyond this term of government. PM Lee calls it an opportunity for the ministers involved to work closely as a team, strengthen their bonds with employers and unions, and show Singaporeans what they can do. PM Lee said:

“It is their generation of leadership who will have to work with you to take this country to new heights”

From this appointment, it is clear that Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, is going to be part of the core of Singapore’s next generation leadership. It’s not usual that the Secretary General of a labour movement can rise to the top of its political leadership.

Unusual Labour Movement to be our brother’s keeper

It’s not easy for Singapore’s labour movement to transform into something as unusual as it is today. The reason it has persevered to do so is that it is committed to being our brother’s keeper. Not just the keeper of the brothers and sisters in the labour movement, but also of all Singaporeans. And not just through good times, but through thick and thin.

And as PM Lee pointed out:

“We will no doubt face further challenges ahead, even severe ones. But if we strengthen our tripartite system, and remain united, if the labour movement remains strong, to take care of our workers, and give them a sense that they are co-owners in our system. If all our segments of society, workers as well as employers, managers and professionals as well as foremen and rank and file, sacrifice equally when sacrifice is called for, and share in the fruits of success when things go well. Then I am confident that we can overcome the challenges and emerge stronger.

Each one of us, with one another for one another, for Singapore. That is the way we make sure that every May Day we will have good reason to celebrate. That is the way we can make good things happen and create a bright future for our children.”

Let’s hope our labour movement continues being unusual.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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