What I learnt about airport, apron and lightning that summer taught me the Singapore model works

By April 4, 2020Current, The Dive

TL;DR – I was fascinated, surprised, bewildered, and then I saw the light.

One summer four years ago, I went on a learning journey to a prosperous city in Asia to understand how unions worked in the aviation industry there.

On that trip, I had the privilege of observing a meeting between the union leaders and the airfield or ground operations workers. They were discussing a problem that I’d never spent much time thinking about:

When to stop/resume airfield operations when lightning strikes?

It’s fascinating.

As I sat there, taking in all the statistics and information that they were going through. I’ve never had to stop work because of weather conditions since I’ve always worked in offices. Whether it’s sunny or rainy or thundery out there, at most it affects my mood and the food I choose to eat. But my safety is never compromised even if I have to work when there’s a thunderstorm.


Interesting things I’d learnt that summer:

One, an apron has nothing to do with cooking or kitchen when in the airport. It’s the tarmac – an area of an airport where planes are parked and serviced before passengers board. Or you can also think of it as where planes parked, unloaded or loaded, serviced, refueled, and boarded.

Two, lightning is extremely hazardous and can even be a fatal threat to anyone working outdoors in the vicinity of lightning. And apparently, lightning has traditionally been a major concern, and contentious too, for the aviation industry.

Three, the challenge is in finding the sweet spot between operational safety and operational efficiency.

I had thought naively that the workers are most at risk during a thunderstorm when it’s directly overhead. But nope. You see, by the time the thunderstorm is overhead, most workers would have already sought shelter. So the  highest number of lightning casualties happens right before a thunderstorm arrives and right after the storm has passed.

You see, people often do not stop outdoor work early enough to protect themselves from the lightning strikes that occur before the storm. And on the other hand, people may resume work too early as the sun lures them out of shelter when lightning is still within striking distance.

via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)


Four, it is difficult to decide when to stop and resume operations safely. There is a fine line between operational safety and operational efficiency. Both are important but balancing the two can be like walking a tightrope for airport operations staff trying to meet scheduled flight times. When is too early to stop or resume work, and when is it too late?

Airports in the world have different SOPs, have different tools and use alert systems, and they adopt different STOP/RESUME codes.

Five, all these questions and more have to be answered: How do you decide when a thunderstorm or other severe weather event is a threat? Who decides that: The airport, the airline? A local meteorologist? A team of meteorologists? What qualifies them to make the call? Where does your weather data and storm warnings come from? How reliable is that information? What happens if a system is already outdated and a new system is too expensive?

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WHOA. I did not imagine any of these.

So I sat there in the room, watching the volley of words between the union leaders and the workers. Mainly, the ground operations workers were not confident that the system was safe enough for them. There were close calls where they stopped work a little too late, they had to work in the rain, and lightning nearly struck a few of them. The exchange was emotional as the workers were upset that the management did not care enough for their safety.

The union leaders collected the feedback after the heated meeting, I was told that the next step would be to go to the media and make as big a fuss out of it as they could.

I was bewildered.

You see, I was expecting them to raise their safety concerns to the management.

Then the union leaders told me they had tried. For months and months, they had tried. The problem was a longstanding one, but they had zero success in getting the management to even down at the same table to talk or negotiate.

Left with no choice, they were considering more drastic and confrontational approaches. Go to the media, get them to sensationalise the story, kick up a big fuss so that there’s public interest, if not furor. Then the union and its workers would have a higher chance of getting the management’s attention.

If that still didn’t work, they could escalate it to some picketing or even a strike.

Yes, all of those actions just to get the management to sit down at the same negotiation table so that they could talk.


Then I came back to Singapore.

My mind kept thinking about how unions worked in other countries vis-a-vis here in Singapore. We are so different.

Every Labour Day, there would be a small fraction of Singaporeans taking to the internet to question why the unions in Singapore are so meek. They would question why our unions don’t hold protests, and why Singapore doesn’t have strikes.

That summer four years ago, I came to understand it’s because we don’t have to.

Think about it. The reason why workers in other countries go on strikes is because the management refuses to hear them out or refuses to negotiate. But in our case, because of our unique model of triparism, unions do not have to resort to those means in order to get the management to sit down and negotiate.

Now imagine the same lightning problem in Singapore.

If our ground operations workers cannot get Changi Airport to sit down and discuss about their safety, then they can always raise it to NTUC. Now the labour chief is a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Besides, NTUC also has labour MPs who advocates for different worker segments in Parliament. So even if the management is difficult or impossible to deal with, the secretary-general of NTUC can easily contact, say, the Manpower Minister to help manage. Or maybe even the Transport Minister.

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Or NTUC’s labour MPs could also raise the issue in Parliament.

So there is no need for the unions in Singapore to protest or strike.

Ours is a fairly good system, methinks.

When jobs are scarce, what can vulnerable workers do to find jobs?

In unity there is strength.

If workers in the same company or same industry can come together, organise themselves and share their concerns, challenges and aspirations with NTUC, then NTUC is in a good position to advocate for the workers’ rights. It can give valuable feedback and input to the government, and this can shape policies and measures.

Take the example of how NTUC had worked with the taxi and private hire vehicle associations in the COVID-19 crisis.

There is the National Taxi Association (NTA) and also the National Private Hire Vehicle Association (NPHVA). Not long after outbreak, NTUC began to monitor the ground very closely and were gathering feedback from the drivers from these associations once they started to see declining income.

NTUC helped to organise a session for the NPHVA drivers to meet Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan and LTA (via FB)


Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Minister Ng Chee Meng who is NTUC’s secretary-general had said, “Because of the very close networks that our NTA and NPHVA have established with their members, we were able to collate relevant and timely feedback very early on.”

“Just around the Chinese New Year period, we started to give many feedback to Government, and that’s why the extension of the different assistance to the drivers was actually ahead even of the Budget announcement.”

Minister Ng Chee Meng talking to a taxi driver (via FB)


That’s not all. It is also because of the feedback collected, NTUC understands deeply about the challenges that the taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers are facing. So the associations have been aggressively reaching out to their members to create awareness about NTUC’s Care Fund and telling drivers to apply for assistance.

Seeing how the COVID-19 situation is likely to be a long battle and with the sharp drop in tourists and the current #Stayhome drive, these drivers expect earnings to be low for a protracted period. So NTUC has launched a pop-up Driver Care Centre at Downtown East earlier this week (31 March).

Minister Ng was there at the launch to speak with drivers and he had share with the media, “It was very happy to be meeting my taxi sisters and brothers, whether they’re driving for Grab Car or taxis. They’re giving very good feedback about this one-stop Care Centre in helping them at least in three ways.”

“One is the immediate extension of Care Fund to the affected.

Two, the matching of training to take this lull time which is quite prolonged to go for some useful training.

And importantly, the third part, with this training, if they so choose, match into other jobs that are still in the market. Whether it’s security field, healthcare screening, and now also, even Bus Captains that are in the cluster of work that they’re currently doing, these are all applicable. They tell me they’re very happy with that.”

Minister Ng revealed that NTUC is now looking closely at this model of a pop-up centre and it’s very promising. They are now exploring if they can extend assistance to more than just taxi and private hire vehicle drivers.

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Minister Ng shared that “Because DPM Heng Swee Keat made a very important announcement on the supplementary budget last week, and we’re looking at this model of pop-up centre, whether we can extend assistance to other self-employed people and freelancers.”

“Plans are being developed. With our experience and feedback from this NTUC Driver Care Centre, we may also want to extend possibilities to other freelancers space that we have relations with, like national coaches, instructors.”

“There are close to 40,000 freelancers who are already with NTUC. But you know, we have around 200,000 SEPs and freelancers in Singapore, so there is still a wide space for us in these very unusual times to extend assistance and care to these workers. And importantly, provide a dignified way for them to continue to earn a wage.”

Minister Ng Chee Meng meeting a group of SEPs from various professions. Amongst them were a Dance Instructor, Personal Wellness Coach and Music Educator, Tchoukball Coach, Combi Bus Driver and a Music Composer and Director (via FB)


Minister Ng Chee Meng: NTUC is not just NTUC FairPrice

While the labour chief lamented about how many people in Singapore think that NTUC is just NTUC FairPrice, he was happy to see that in the last six weeks or so, more and more people have come to see NTUC as a friend in the workplace. He was referring to various outreach programmes NTUC has carried out with different unions, including supporting frontline workers with Care Packages, Care Fund and also the latest pop-up centre for drivers.

“Even if the government policies are already very comprehensive, I hope that the self-employed and the freelancers will come to us if there is anything, be it policy issues and gaps. Just come to us.”

Freelance tour guides sharing with Minister Ng Chee Meng how their incomes have been badly affected by the current situation (via FB)


“See whether NTUC can represent you in our feedback to the Government and to the employers. I hope that all the freelancers and self-employed who may be facing difficulties can step forward so that we have this relationship, and then in organizing ourselves, to present our case to Government.”


(Featured image via)

NTUC lends a helping hand to taxi and private-hire drivers amid COVID-19 woes


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Qiqi Wong

Author Qiqi Wong

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