TL;DR — Workers collectively negotiated and banded together to support each other, even lobbying in Parliament for pro-worker policies.
In 2020, Singaporeans welcomed the new year as early alerts of a fast-spreading pneumonia virus originating from Wuhan (now known as Covid-19) slowly but surely made its impact on almost every facet of our lives.
Singaporeans have braced themselves through these two months, with multiple reports of workers helping workers unceasing as we entered DORSCON Orange and have been at this status since 7 February 2020.
These offers of help do not only encompass the distribution of essential hygiene items, care packs and gifts (which are widely reported already), but also lobbying government, businesses and partners to provide additional support for affected workers, collective negotiation when workers are at a disadvantage and banding together to support fellow workers when they are overwhelmed or can’t get to work.
These are some heartwarming instances of workers helping fellow workers during the Covid-19 crisis.
1. When kiasu shoppers wiped out NTUC FairPrice’s stocks as DORSCON Orange was announced
You probably remember stark scenes of empty shelves, long queues at cashiers and overloaded trolleyfuls of instant noodles that went viral when the DORSCON Orange announcement sparked panic buying in Singapore from 7 February. Many of these photos were taken at outlets of NTUC FairPrice, one of the major retailers here.
Although the government and NTUC FairPrice repeatedly assured Singapore that there were enough stocks, and requested people not to panic buy and hoard, there was actually not enough manpower to replenish stocks from the warehouse at the same rate shoppers were snapping up essentials and other items like toilet paper.
I personally witnessed how shoppers wiped out shelves of instant noodles faster than the FairPrice staff could restock it. At the rate people were panic buying, it was impossible to replenish the shelves. The staff desperately needed backup.
The next day, a whatsapp message from NTUC FairPrice made its rounds calling for volunteers from the NTUC family to support its restocking operations over the next few days.
Over weekends, nights and early mornings, NTUC FairPrice staff and volunteers replenished stocks at outlets islandwide so customers could get what they needed.
With concerted efforts to calm jittery shoppers and stocking up shelves to assure that there is no need to panic buy, normalcy resumed the following week.
2. When Scoot needed volunteers to bring Singaporeans home
On 30 January 2020, Scoot flight TR121 landed in Singapore after leaving Wuhan to bring home 92 Singaporeans stranded there. The evacuation effort involved Scoot crew who had volunteered to work on the flight.
Typically no one would want to volunteer on a flight to Ground Zero of the coronavirus right?
But guess what? there were actually more volunteers than was needed, according to NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng who sent off the flight crew which included Scoot Staff Union leaders and members.
A second Scoot flight manned again by volunteers from the MFA crisis response team, medical personnel, pilots, and crew of Scoot brought back 174 Singaporeans and their family members, knowing they would also be quarantined home upon their arrival.
3. When healthcare workers had to forgo their annual leave and vacations
While battling the Covid-19 virus, healthcare workers in public hospitals have had their annual leave frozen, or cancelled if their leave was earlier approved.
This meant they had to cancel air tickets and other holiday bookings they had made in advance, so that hospitals had enough staff to handle a higher-than-expected volume of patients.
After The Healthcare Services Employees’ Union (HSEU) highlighted its members’ concern over refunding of cancelled holiday plans, the tripartite partners — government (via Ministry of Manpower), NTUC and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) — said that healthcare institutions will provide their workers with letters of proof of the employers’ cancellation of leave.
With the letters, healthcare workers can seek refunds from travel agents and claims from insurance companies. However if they cannot get full refunds, the public healthcare institutions will help defray the costs incurred by the workers.
HSEU also offered assistance to healthcare workers facing issues with their trip cancellations and reimbursements.
4. When healthcare workers needed to get to work
Workers in the frontline have had their jobs and lives disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis. Some healthcare workers have faced discrimination on public transport and even taking lifts!!
To help healthcare workers get to work, leaders from the National Taxi Association (NTA) and National Private Hire Vehicles Association (NPHVA) — which consists of taxi drivers and PHV drivers respectively forming a collective body — have stepped up to provide transport services to and from hospitals for healthcare workers.
This isn’t a new effort, in fact many of them have had experience ferrying healthcare workers to and from hospitals during the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“I was part of a group of drivers who similarly pledged our support to provide transport services to and fro hospitals, and I am willing to do so once again to help out our healthcare workers. This is what we should do as Singaporeans, we help one another out. As a taxi leader, I will also continue to rally more of our drivers to do the same,” said Mr Foo Chi Yong, a taxi driver and NTA General Secretary who ferried healthcare workers during SARS in 2003 and is doing so again during Covid-19 in 2020.
5. When taxi and private hire vehicle drivers face depressed earnings
Taxi and private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers have seen their incomes dip as tourist arrivals fall and fewer people travel around Singapore via taxis and PHVs.
While the government has offered $100/day allowance to quarantined drivers, NTA and NPHVA are also supporting their members with a one-time $200 assistance and care packages.
NPHVA also stepped in to collectively bargain with Grab when the latter suddenly announced plans to suspend their driver incentive scheme (Super Steady Streak), which would affect the earnings of PHV drivers, who were shocked by such a move by Grab.
After discussions with NPHVA and Land Transport Authority (LTA), Grab agreed to extend the Scheme until May 2020.
NPHVA advisor Ang Hin Kee reminded operators that “Operators must look at how they can help drivers to cope with business costs (such as) rental, fuel and commission (and so on), as well as how they can better boost ridership by offering short-term promotions to commuters.”.
6. Lobbying for more support for workers so their jobs can be saved
Workers who have been elected as leaders have been lobbying for companies to cut costs and save jobs, especially during the downturn we are facing now 🙁
Labour MPs who are union representatives recently spoke up about workers’ concerns at Singapore’s Budget Debate.
NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng revealed how NTUC will pilot a Jobs Security Council with 4,000 companies to help place retrenched professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) in new jobs.
It’s not like we haven’t been through an epidemic before.
Labour MP Patrick Tay, Executive Secretary of the largest union in Singapore (the Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union or SMMWU), proposed reinstating the Surrogate Employer Programme.
He recalled that during the outbreak of the SARS in 2003, he supervised a surrogate employer scheme at NTUC. At that time, NTUC sent workers like tour guides and airline cabin crew for courses under its Surrogate Employer Programme. Freelancers and workers whose firms could not sponsor their training could get course fee funding and financial support from NTUC too.
It is also timely that the Budget 2020 took into consideration Patrick Tay’s lobbying since 2017 for the government to provide a $500 Skillsfuture top up for Singaporeans (as freelancers and self-employed will benefit as well) and start a SkillsFuture Credit for Employers.
7. Workers reaching out to workers to explain the Covid-19 situation and how to protect themselves
During this sensitive period, many of us prefer to stay at home and avoid meeting people or going to crowded places.
However, when the DORSCON level was raised to Orange, Centre of Domestic Employees’ volunteer ambassadors (who are foreign domestic workers themselves) braved the rain on Sunday (their day off) to share with every domestic worker they came across on how to protect themselves during this epidemic.
The Migrant Workers’ Centre also activated more than 5,000 MWC ambassadors (who are migrant workers themselves), who shared the various hygiene precautions through its network, translated key messages into the respective vernacular languages and used infographics to help migrant workers understand the Covid-19 situation.
How many of us would spend our free time doing this?
Do you know of any other instances of workers helping workers? Do share in the comments below!