NTUC will have to evolve, adapt to changing trends as Singapore refreshes social compact: Lawrence Wong
SINGAPORE: The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) will have to evolve and even reinvent itself to remain relevant in a changing landscape, especially as Singapore refreshes its social compact, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Saturday (Jul 23).
Speaking at the launch of the NTUC Youth Task Force, Mr Wong laid out the role unions have played in Singapore's history, noting how a strong labour movement has always anchored the country's social compact.
As Singapore's labour landscape changes, its unions must stay relevant by responding to fresh challenges and be representative of its changing workforce, he said.
"If Singapore is to continue flourishing in the years to come, then it must continue to have a strong labour movement," said Mr Wong in his speech.
“If the NTUC is to continue organising and mobilising the bulk of our workforce, it will have to adapt to changing trends,” he added.
In his speech, Mr Wong noted how Singapore now has a better-educated workforce and a rising share of professionals, managers and executives.
With this, he said, the NTUC will have to find new ways to engage these workers, even while continuing to look after rank-and-file workers.
He also outlined potential major changes in the nature of work, as the rise of gig and remote work creates new concerns and challenges.
Rapid technological disruptions are also increasing, putting older and more vulnerable workers at greater risk and hastening the need to upskill workers and redesign jobs, he added.
He expressed confidence that the NTUC will “thoroughly consider" those issues, and put in place the right structures and processes to broaden its reach to workers of different profiles while continuing to represent the broad base of society, so that the labour movement remains a “key pillar of strength” in Singapore.
Speaking at the launch of the Youth Taskforce @ Lit Discovery 2022 on Saturday, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said the union "underwent soul searching" during the COVID-19 pandemic to see how it can innovate to answer to the needs of the different segments of the working people in Singapore.
"How can we do better than what we have in the last 20 years, for the young people that are amongst us today?" he said.
IMPORTANCE OF LABOUR MOVEMENT IN SINGAPORE
Mr Wong, who is also Singapore's Finance Minister, last month launched a year-long exercise to review and refresh Singapore's social compact.
Known as Forward Singapore, a report will be published in mid-2023 after its conclusion, setting out policy recommendations to underpin the country's refreshed social compact and highlight how different segments of society can be more involved in contributing towards its shared goals.
In his speech last month, Mr Wong said that as the world around Singapore and Singapore's own society changes, the country can turn challenges into opportunities if it strengthens its social compact.
"If our social compact fails, a large segment of Singaporeans will come to feel estranged from the rest of society, believing the system is not on their side.
"Trust in the Government and among various segments of society will plummet. Politics will turn nasty and polarised. We will become a low-trust society like so many others in Asia and Europe, and Singapore will surely fracture."
During his speech on Saturday, Mr Wong spoke of how Singapore has consciously and deliberately set out to make the labour movement a key partner in governing the country.
He also spoke of how labour relations have deteriorated in many developed countries, with trade union membership declining “considerably”.
"The state of labour relations in any society is a litmus test of how strong that society is, how strong their social compact is," he said.
“When the working class becomes a permanent under-class, with very little prospects for advancement, they lose faith in the system, and trust breaks down,” he said. “This is what you see happening in many developed countries.”
While some countries are seeing a resurgence of unionisation efforts – for example in the US, where workers from companies such as Starbucks and Amazon are starting unions to fight for their rights – this is “an uphill battle”, said Mr Wong.
This is because many big companies see unions as harmful to their own growth and profits, and therefore try to “clamp down” on them.
“As a result, trust between employer and workers breaks down further,” he said.
Many of these societies have become “fraught with tension” as there is no consensus on how to move forward to implement important issues and progress becomes more elusive.
Singapore could learn from these examples, particularly younger unionists, workers and students, he said.
“We should never take for granted the harmonious tripartite relations we enjoy,” he said, adding that these are “neither a given nor a natural state of affairs”.
Singapore should also do its “utmost to not just preserve what we have inherited, but to make it better”, he added.
To do that, the NTUC must continue to be forward-looking and progressive, especially as Singapore refreshes its social compact.
Singapore’s unions must also stay relevant to the changing landscape, be responsive to fresh challenges and be representative of a changing workforce, he said.
“If the NTUC remains strong, then we can take heart that we are moving in the right direction, and Singapore will continue to be successful.”