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NTUC eyes new taskforce to protect workers at ‘pre-retrenchment’ phase, sets 1.5 million membership goal

NTUC eyes new taskforce to protect workers at ‘pre-retrenchment’ phase, sets 1.5 million membership goal

Office workers at Raffles Place in Singapore. (File photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

SINGAPORE: With those in their 40s and 50s increasingly worried about losing their jobs amid economic uncertainties, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) will set up a new work security taskforce to offer older workers better protection.

Such a taskforce will look at stepping in at the “pre-retrenchment” phase by partnering employers and ensuring workers have the necessary technical skills, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng told reporters at the end of the NTUC Delegates’ Conference on Wednesday (Oct 16).

Mr Ng, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, first mooted the idea of the taskforce in his opening speech at the start of the two-day conference on Tuesday.

He pointed out that older workers may find it hard to be re-employed in a similar job after being retrenched, with some driving private-hire cars to make a living.

Even those who are still employed are worried, said Mr Ng. While the numbers of such workers are not large, the anxieties, especially among the professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), are “high”.

Given this emerging problem, NTUC needs to be pre-emptive, he said.

“Can we rethink our protection model to go upstream – partner our employers and see how we can go into the pre-retrenchment phase to help our workers? I think we can,” said Mr Ng, adding that the taskforce will propose solutions to “reduce the window between retrenchment and emplacements” in a bid to allay concerns on the ground.

The idea was approved by delegates at the conference, with Mr Gilbert Tan, chief executive officer of the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), heading the initiative. More details will be announced in time to come.

“When we talk about work security, it’s not just in the space of pre-retrenchment but also training philosophy,” Mr Ng told reporters on Tuesday.

Pre-retrenchment training will ensure that workers have deeper skillsets and remain valuable to their companies, he elaborated.

When it comes to partnering employers, Mr Ng explained: “Companies trust our unions and they do let us know ahead of time, so that we can help workers to transit into other jobs in the same industry. In some cases, maybe (take up) other training to go into other industries.

“Because we have this experience, when we see the new problem of retrenched PMEs (in their 40s and 50s), we want to see if we can play a role in this space.”

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The NTUC on Wednesday also announced a new target to attract 1.5 million members by “an aspirational timeline” of 2025. 

But given the global uncertainties, Mr Ng said the labour movement is “also quite happy” to realise this goal by 2030. 

This new target comes against the backdrop of falling union memberships around the world. 

Unions in several countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have lost nearly half of their members over the last three decades, Mr Ng said.

READ: Bond between PAP, NTUC must be sustained and strengthened, says PM Lee

For example, the unionisation rate in the United States has fallen from 35 per cent in the 1950s to the current 10 per cent. In Malaysia, the rate stands at 7 per cent.

In Singapore, the NTUC has about 950,000 members - about 30 per cent of the workforce. Although this number has bucked global trends, growth has tapered, according to Mr Ng. 

Asked about the feasibility of the 1.5 million target during the press conference, the secretary-general said that membership numbers are the “strategic performance indicator” for the labour movement. 

“If you want to be representative and relevant, it is the clearest sign of how we are doing,” he added. 

While acknowledging that the target is “ambitious”, Mr Ng said the labour movement is confident and that its plans to innovate in three key areas will be “substantive strategies”. 

These refer to innovating its union, membership and training models – all of which were discussed at the conference and received broad consensus among the delegates present.

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng speaking at the end of the NTUC Delegates’ Conference on Oct 16, 2019.


The new taskforce is one such way of changing its union model, with the other being to enhance its representation of workers in new sectors as well as take into account the changing workforce here. 

Apart from rank-and-file professionals, PMEs and those employed by small- and medium-sized enterprises, NTUC said Singapore is also seeing a growing pool of freelancers and self-employed workers. 

“To be a representative labour movement for all workers, we will need to innovate the current way in which we protect and represent our workers,” it added in a media release. 

To do so, new unions can be created, such as the Supply Chain Employees' Union that represents workers regardless of whether they are rank-and-file or PMEs. 

A digital union, where “the digital relationship predominates”, is also among the ideas being explored. 

Mr Ng said this remains at the “very early stages” but he noted that the union is looking at this as a possible idea for the freelancing community. 

“Because many of the freelancers are increasingly tech-savvy and they are … not so much location-dependent. So we can actually consider using a different model to organise these freelancers on a digital platform,” he said. 

The NTUC could also expand its “worker-centric” membership model to become more “family-centric”. 

This will be done by exploring a family membership model, where the family of a union member can also benefit from the services under NTUC, such as affordable food from Foodfare or Kopitiam, groceries from FairPrice, childcare and elderly care at My First Skool and NTUC Health.

READ: DFS offers retrenched employees better severance deal, but some say it's not enough

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But beyond its members, NTUC has remained committed to helping all workers in Singapore, he said.

Citing the recent retrenchments at duty-free operator DFS, Mr Ng said the union stepped in to help workers despite the LVMH-owned company not being a unionised company. 

Asked if that contributes to the thinking that one does not have to join the union to receive help, Mr Ng replied that the labour movement must stick to its “core principles”. 

“It is a dilemma for the labour movement, but if we stick to the core mission of helping workers … the most important thing is we do the right thing at the right time for the workers.”

“But indeed, if the majority don’t become members, then the labour movement will be weak and (it) cannot do what we do - to represent workers in the economic and socio-political space.”

The new NTUC Central Committee elected at the end of the two-day NTUC Delegates’ Conference 2019. (Photo: NTUC)

At the end of the two-day conference held at the Orchid Country Club, the NTUC delegates also elected a new 21-member central committee for the next four years.

This was done via a secret ballot that involved more than 400 delegates from NTUC’s 59 affiliated unions. 

Ms Mary Liew will serve a second term as president, while Mr Ng also got re-elected as secretary-general to the central committee, which forms the planning, policy and executive organ of NTUC.

Source: CNA/sk(mi)


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