Huh, union leaders? What do union leaders do anyway?

By October 22, 2020Current, People, Work

TL;DR – This article will attempt to demystify the things you didn’t know about union leaders in Singapore.

Before the union leaders hit back at Workers’ Party (WP) MP Jamus Lim for his unwarranted remarks in Parliament last week, nobody – except for maybe me – ever gives a hoot about what a union leader does.

Hence, we see comments like this:

Well, we can’t really blame them because it is human nature to not care about issues that don’t personally affect us or those close to us, isn’t it?

For the benefit of those who are curious about what’s exactly a union leader and what sort of work a union leader does, we are going to try our very best to help you understand more about union leaders in Singapore and the things they do.

What’s a union leader?

I’d call it Sai Kang Warrior if I could.

Because as a union leader, they are expected to be an effective liaison to support the aspirations and address concerns of their fellow workers. Their roles and responsibilities go beyond their normal day-to-day job scope.

In its simplest form, union leaders are “activists” in a company, who are passionate about ensuring that workplace conditions are fair for workers.

And in case you didn’t know, union leaders chose to step up to serve voluntarily, and they are voted in to represent the collective voices of the workers in the same company. Like many others, if you’re wondering if these union leaders are paid for doing these extra duties… No, they are not.

What does a union leader do?

Before anyone starts lashing out at how useless unions in Singapore are, or starts accusing the union leaders of not doing anything, mind you, a lot of their work is invisible work which makes heaps of difference to the workers they represent. Maybe you don’t know because your own company is not unionised.

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The work they do are possibly things that you wouldn’t have imagined, such as

  • Rendering support to a union member and her family when the member was bedridden
  • Helping a union member’s family after the member who’s also a sole breadwinner had passed away due to a heart attack

Of seafarers, navigating life’s unpredictable waves

  • Fighting alongside a union member who was diagnosed with leukemia and helping him negotiate with his company’s human resources department for the best HR practice

Tales from the union: oil tank fires, leukemia and liquidation

  • Helping a union member who’s lost a limb by creating a job role for his daughter

The stories above are just the tip of the iceberg of the things union leaders do.

Besides stepping in to help workers and their families in times of need and helping to resolve a worker’s grievances, union leaders are also involved in negotiating with companies for better employment terms and benefits for the workers.

By the way, did you know also know that the retrenchment benefits for workers in unionised companies are usually better than those in non-unionised ones? In most cases, the retrenchment benefits in unionised environments are always one month per year of service, capped at 25 years. While in some instances, there is no cap.

That’s because the Collective Agreements – which is essentially an agreement between the union and the employer – allows for the union to negotiate for better terms for the workers.

What happens if I’m retrenched?

As representatives of their fellow workers, union leaders act as the voice when it comes to fighting for workers’ welfare and to ensure the outcome is fair for workers.

The day 112 staff were asked to go…

In other words, they are also a bridge between workers and employers. They do things quietly for the betterment of their fellow workers without trumpeting their achievements. So yes, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

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Union leaders are ordinary workers too

Contrary to the popular folksy belief that union leaders are those in the management level, union leaders are just ordinary workers in the workforce, just like you and me. In fact, union leaders often forego promotions to management level so that they can continue to serve.

So, if you are one of those who thinks that union leaders refer to Labour Chief Ng Chee Meng or the Labour MPs, then you are indeed very wrong about it.

More often than not, unions and union leaders are being accused as “toothless tiger” simply because unlike other countries where there is a need for unions to be militant for government and employers to act or give in to their demands, the unions in Singapore function differently.

Instead of confrontational tactics, the unions in Singapore consciously decided on the non-confrontational approach to collaborate with the Government to improve the lives of workers through more peaceful and effective ways.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that unions and union leaders in Singapore are pushovers and would blindly take sides of the employers nor the Government and dare not go on strikes. If need be, or when the workers’ rice bowl and rights are at stake, you can be certain that the unions would not cower silently and would pull no punches should the occasion calls for it.

Remember the Hydril Strike sanctioned by Mr Ong Teng Cheong, then Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) in 1986?

How about this case of a union calling out and speaking up against their management when employees in the company were not treated well?

Finally, someone talked some sense into Surbana Jurong

Or perhaps more recently, the Eagle Services Asia (ESA) retrenchment story which happened in July?

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

The NTUC and unions in the aerospace and aviation cluster were all ready to take an industrial action – which means to go on a strike – should the company fails to give the affected employees satisfactory terms in the retrenchment exercise!

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Toothless and a mouthpiece you say? Nope, far from that. It’s about making smart decisions for a win-win outcome without having to lose an arm or a leg, literally.



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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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