Explainer: What is Industrial Action? Why 3 unions involved in Eagle Services Asia retrenchment?

By July 29, 2020Current, Work

TL;DR – One must be so nasty for 3 separate unions to want to conduct industrial action on you, all at the same time!

Editor’s note: Since we were curious what Industrial Action means, we invited an Industrial Relations Officer to help us out. Yoong Kheong has been doing industrial relations work for nearly a decade, and he has kindly agreed to demystify the concept for us. Thanks Yoong Kheong!


A nasty employer has drawn the ire of three unions that they went to the extent of securing mandate from their members to initiate industrial action.

This employer, Eagles Services Asia (ESA), a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and SIA Engineering Company, is in the aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul.

NTUC and unions stepped in to halt retrenchment at Eagle Services Asia (Updated with ESA’s response)

What is Industrial Action?

Under the Trade Disputes Act, Industrial action is defined as:

  1. any act or omission by a body of persons employed in any trade or industry, acting in combination or under a common understanding, which would result in any limitation or restriction on, or delay in, the performance of any duties connected with their employment; or
  2. a strike, that is to say, the cessation of work by a body of persons employed in any trade or industry acting in combination, or a concerted refusal, or a refusal under a common understanding of a number of persons who are, or who have been so employed, to continue to work or to accept employment;

According to the Trade Union Act, legal industrial action can be taken by registered trade unions with consent obtained, by secret ballot, from the majority of the members.

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Depending on the Union’s constitution and rules, a majority support from the union’s executive committee and approval from NTUC’s Secretary-General might be required.

Industrial action may include getting members to:

  • Wear black armbands to display solidarity against the employer;
  • Down tools – stop work;
  • Go-slow – slow down work output;
  • Picketing – standing outside the workplace, most of the time holding placards and banners
  • Non-cooperation – refusal to follow employers’ instructions
  • Work-to-rule – perform work only to the minimum stated in employment contract
  • and yes, Strike

While you may think it is easy to conduct an Industrial Action, think again.

Besides the secret ballot process, as a union, you would have to think about:

  • Workers’ finances – does the union have sufficient strike funds to sustain workers throughout the strike?
  • Workers’ support – does the union have sufficient clout and ground support to get members to physically gather and cast their votes to support the resolution to take industrial action? Will union members stand in solidarity and not break ranks from the union to work for the employer?
  • Public support – is the dispute a justifiable one to warrant an Industrial Action?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once said this during the NTUC National Delegates’ Conference in 2019,

“In Singapore, you may not know it but when people say industrial action, they really mean industrial inaction. That means nothing is happening, but it shows that you are angry.”

Why are there 3 unions involved in one company?

The Air Transport Executive Staff Union (AESU) represents the executives, while the SIA Staff Union (SIASU) represents the rank-and-file workers; and the SIA Engineering Company Engineers and Executives Union (SEEU) represents the engineers among ESA’s workforce.

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One must be so nasty for 3 separate unions to want to conduct industrial action on you, all at the same time!

Have there been any other legal industrial actions in modern Singapore’s history?

On 3 January 1986, about 60 workers of an American oil equipment manufacturer Hydril went on strike, following an unanimous vote among members of the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees Union (SMEEU).

The union had decided to take industrial action after Hydril’s management harassed and intimidated union members and officials by various ways, including unfairly dismissing them. Union members picketed outside the company’s gates and don red armbands with the words, “We want justice”.

The strike lasted for 2 days.

Workers on strike at the Hydril factory in January 1986 (via)

In September 2003, over 3,000 rail workers gathered to cast their ballots, with more than 80% who voted yes, to authorise the National Transport Workers’ Union’s Executive Committee to conduct industrial action.

This followed the management’s decision to freeze the wages of the workers, following a plunge in the company’s investment income.

The Union had planned to conduct a strike on a Sunday morning, when it would be least disruptive to Singaporeans. The strike was averted in the final hours before the strike when the management decided to cave in to the union’s demands.

Bonus Trivia for you since you are still reading this!

Do you know employers can form a trade union too?

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) is the only registered trade union of employers. While SNEF cannot conduct legal industrial action, individual employers can conduct lock-out to prevent workers from entering the workplace.

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Fong Yoong Kheong is an Industrial Relations Officer who helps workers in securing a fair deal at the workplace. In his free time, Yoong Kheong enjoys eating hotpot, playing Jurassic World and laughing at funny sounding words with his son.


(Featured image via)


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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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