SINGAPORE: A strong labour movement remains crucial to Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Apr 30), as he commended the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for its good work over the last 50 years.
In his May Day Message, Mr Lee noted that in many developed countries, union membership is falling and organised labour is being marginalised. “Workers’ concerns are not addressed, and they feel bewildered, leaderless and helpless,” he said. “Not surprisingly, they turn to extreme, nativist political movements that pander to their fears and insecurity, but offer no realistic solutions or inspiring leadership to improve their lives.”
However, he said that Singapore’s labour movement has “good reason” to be proud of its record over the last 50 years.
“In Singapore, constructive and cooperative unions, together with enlightened employers and a supportive government, have delivered better incomes for workers and steady progress for the country,” he said.
“We must stay on this path, and strengthen trust and cooperation among the tripartite partners, so that despite the uncertainties and challenges in the global economy, we can continue to thrive and prosper together as a nation.”
LABOUR MOVEMENT AT ‘ANOTHER TURNING POINT’
In his message, Mr Lee described the labour movement's Modernisation Seminar in 1969 as a “crucial turning point” marking its decision to “fundamentally shift from confrontation to collaboration”.
He said the unions worked with the Government in support of newly passed laws, and new institutions. NTUC Income, as well as a whole series of labour cooperatives, was set up to provide workers with affordable essential goods and services.
“This is how the NTUC became a vibrant, progressive organisation, an essential and equal partner in Singapore’s unique model of tripartism,” he said.
However, Mr Lee said that today, the labour movement is at “another turning point”, with the external environment changing rapidly, and new jobs being created even as old industries and jobs are phasing out.
“The future of work looks very different,” he said. “The NTUC must anticipate these challenges, and prepare the unions, union leaders and workers for them early, before they overwhelm us.”
NTUC, he said, has played a “major role” in promoting the re-employment of older workers, such as by helping build tripartite consensus to raise the retirement and re-employment ages further.
It has also championed the progressive wage model, which, together with Workfare, has made a “real difference” to lower wage workers.
Mr Lee added that in collaboration with NTUC, the Government has started many upgrading and retraining programmes under SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow. “We continue to improve the programmes, as we gain experience with them and new needs emerge,” he said.
While labour productivity grew by 3.7 per cent last year, Mr Lee noted that the gains were largely in the outward-oriented sectors, especially manufacturing, and Singapore still needs to work harder to improve productivity in domestic services, such as retail and food and beverages.
He also noted that last year’s retrenchment rate was the lowest in more than 10 years, and Singapore’s efforts to retrain employees and prepare them to handle new technology and different jobs has made a difference.
“Had we not strongly emphasised training, upgrading, and redeploying staff, companies might have taken the easy way out, retrenching old workers and replacing them with freshly hired new graduates, and the dislocation would have been much worse,” he said. “We must keep up our efforts at training and upgrading.”
“It is a marathon without end, but we are making progress.”