Thursday, 19 November 2009

NTUC: Union or Members’ Club?


trade union

Organization whose membership consists of workers and union leaders, and whose principal purposes are to (1) negotiate wages and working condition terms, (2) regulate relations between workers (its members) and the employer, (3) take collective action to enforce the terms of collective bargaining, (4) raise new demands on behalf of its members, and (5) help settle their grievances. Trade unions are generally classified as: (a) Company union that represents interests of only one firm and may not have any connection with the trade union movement. Also called house union, a company union is often a bogus one and generally illegal. (b) General union that represents workers from several firms from the same industry. Also called industrial union. (c) Craft union that represents skilled workers in a particular field such as carpentry or welding.


The latest furor stems from an annoyed Mr Khoong who wrote in to the Straits Times Forum page to ask for more sensibility on the part of the NTUC in giving out ‘NTUC vouchers’ (I'm assuming this means NTUC FairPrice department store vouchers) to NTUC members who worked at his firm.


Indeed it seems odd that the NTUC, which represents the interests of entire industries, would act in such an alienating way towards some workers. Would not the non-members be in equal difficulty and feel neglected - even though it may be ‘their fault for not becoming a member’? Conversely, when the NTUC calls for workers and employers to be ‘Cheaper, Better & Faster’ does it only address the members then?

In any case, a grand show of (blind) loyalty to the NTUC led an enthusiastic Mdm Chow to reply in today’s Straits Times Forum with a chiding retort extolling the benefits of being an NTUC member.

Mdm Chow is indeed right as well that Mr Khong ‘missed the point’ that he ‘would have been better off joining the union from day one’. Indeed, the manner in which the NTUC went about giving out the vouchers seems more for the purpose of ‘punishing’ the non-members for their lack of support than to ‘bring joy’ to members. Why else would they so openly ostracise and belittle some workers when a more discreet process would have resulted in the same level of joy for the recipients whilst avoiding the bad aftertaste for others?

The key to addressing the aforementioned furor seems to lie in understanding what it means to be an NTUC member – it certainly affords many privileges such as shopping discounts, special entertainment packages and occasionally, NTUC FairPrice department store vouchers to supposedly help with financial difficulty. This is not unlike other clubs, societies and organisations which gather groups of people and offer them bulk discounts and privileges of all sort.

What the NTUC does not do though is remonstrate any employer for poor practices, organise large-scale negotiations, draw up firm and specific guidelines that champion workers’ causes, or lobby for widespread change in labour practices. In fact, the description on the website of what the NTUC exactly does is quite vague and generic – except for all the wonderful membership privileges it can offer.

For example, it is comical that ‘What We Do’ according to the NTUC includes what workers ought to be, what government and industry players ought to do and what mindset Singaporeans generally should adopt. The only real commitment on this particular webpage seems to be on improving on their recreational facilities and raising money for charity.

screen capture of

Legislatively, the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) already handles the whole gamut of labour matters (even mediation), which makes the NTUC’s involvement in shaping the climate for workers largely ceremonial. What we do observe, however, is a top-down approach where the NTUC, helmed by CEO Lim Swee Say (who is also a Minister ‘kosong’), tells workers and employers to be ‘Cheaper, Better & Faster’ and belts out such ‘hits’ as 'Upturn the Downturn' (see below) to placate the increasingly struggling masses.

Meanwhile, suggestions for radical changes are typically met with the reiteration that the system currently in place is the best - instead of any due consideration for the feasibility or potential benefit in implementing such changes (see Halimah Yacob’s reply to ‘Give women the right to ask bosses for flexi-work' for an example).

Thus, the situation needs to be understood in the proper context and where the NTUC’s actions may have seemingly caused non-members unhappiness, this sentiment is in fact unfounded. Taking into consideration that the average member who was a ‘member from day one’ would have paid thousands of dollars in membership fees over the years, receiving a $300 shopping voucher is still a net loss. The non-members in the case cited would have in fact (rightfully) saved those thousands of dollars and spent the money on things they wanted to instead of (being forced into) just buying more groceries and tidbits.

The NTUC should be allowed to behave as the exclusive members-only club that it is and should not be confused with a union that protects or champions any particular cause, or one that ensures that any worker who is suffering is accorded the necessary financial support. Only then can the action of proudly offering some workers vouchers (never mind if they need it or not) whilst overtly ignoring others (even though they may be in real financial hardship) seem not inappropriate at all.



Anonymous Paul said...


A very clear article, well referenced and should be compulsory reading for all Singaporean young people

19 November 2009 21:29:00 GMT+08:00  
Blogger Ganga said...

Thank you for your kind words Paul!

19 November 2009 23:22:00 GMT+08:00  
Anonymous contrarian said...

Reading your article, I suppose you have never represented management to negotiate a collective agreement with a union, or faced a union representing a worker in a grievance procedure.

23 November 2009 22:17:00 GMT+08:00  
Blogger Ganga said...

No, never... do enlighten me if you have, thanks!

23 November 2009 23:01:00 GMT+08:00  

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