Organizing all workers: A new Singapore initiative

Southeast Asia’s wealthiest and most stable labor confederation is based in a country whose population is 1/20th of that of the Philippines—Singapore’s National Trade Union Centre (NTUC).  The NTUC is the sole labor center in the city state.  It has a solid or united membership of around 900,000.

The NTUC takes a moderate centrist position on political issues.  It also has a business-like orientation, which is one reason the more militant unions in the Philippines and other countries tend to distance themselves from this labor center.

The NTUC grew and became strong partly with the recognition extended to it by Singapore’s founding leader, Lee  Kuan Yew.  It supported the separation of Singapore from the Malaysian federation under the leadership of the People’s Action Party. In turn, its cooperation with the government has been amply rewarded. It sits in various tripartite and policy-making bodies, including the wage and skills development boards.  Some of the past and present officials of the government have come from the NTUC ranks.

The NTUC runs some of the Asean’s biggest social enterprises. These enterprises provide “a range of services that are both affordable and accessible to meet the life cycles” not only of NTUC members but also of the rest of society.  The biggest chain of supermarkets in the city state is NTUC FairPrice, which caters to the needs of ordinary Singaporeans.  Other well-known NTUC enterprises are: Income for insurance, First Campus for childcare and kindergarten, NTUC Health for health-care products and eldercare services, Foodfare for cooked food, and NTUC Club for a range of lifestyle activities.  These enterprises, professionally managed, are organized to meet primarily the demand of citizens for various essentials at affordable prices. In turn, this business formula helped transform some of these enterprises into household names in Singapore.

NTUC can also claim that it is fully independent, financially that is. It has a 32-story building, One Marina Boulevard, right at the heart of the country’s financial district.  It occupies two floors and leases out the rest.

In recent years, the NTUC has also attracted the attention of industrial-relations scholars for some of NTUC’s “bold” initiatives in labor organizing.  For example, it launched an organizing program called “CAN,” meaning organizing workers of all collars (blue, white and none), ages and nationalities.  NTUC has also been pushing the government and employers to have tripartite cooperation in “Project Advantage,” a project aimed at helping aging workers retain or stay in their jobs by redesigning or reengineering the work assigned to them, for example, veteran camera men in media outfits are given flexible trolleys and other equipment to lessen stress on their bodies.  In the Philippines and other countries, aging or elderly workers who can no longer perform at their old efficiency rate are simply given the “golden handshake” and a modest severance pay.

However, the boldest initiative yet of NTUC came a few weeks ago.  On November 15, the NTUC updated its Constitution by declaring that “all working people,” including freelancers, migrant workers, as well as professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) are entitled to NTUC assistance.  NTUC Secretary-General Chan Chung Sing explained that the membership base of the labor movement in the past had been “narrowly interpreted by some as just representing the rank and file workers using the Union as the only mechanism.”  He added:  “People move fluidly in between jobs, and we shouldn’t have this artificial divide as to who is considered rank and file, who is considered PMETs.” The change in the Constitution was supported by 97 percent of the 410 representative delegates to the NTUC Congress.

The above change in NTUC’s orientation on labor representation caps other earlier organizing initiatives of NTUC that go beyond the traditional formal employer-employee relations involving mainly regular rank-and-file workers.  These include an initiative to support workers in small and medium  enterprises , one to support professionals, managers and executives (U Associates), another to support freelancers and the self-employed (U FSE), as well as one for migrant workers.  These are collectively called the “U Network,” which serves an additional 1.25 million workers.

In organizing regular rank-and-file workers, the usual destination of union efforts is toward the conclusion of a collective bargaining agreement, which defines the terms and conditions of work for a certain period of time. But in the new NTUC organizing, things are a bit different.  For example, for the professionals and managerial employees, the focus of NTUC is on how to help these PMETs grow their professional networks and adopt skills to help them stay relevant and competitive.  Is this not the right approach in organizing the million or so workers in the Philippines call center-BPO sector, where traditional unionism is unable to make any serious inroads for more than a decade?

In the NTUC Congress, delegates articulated the demand of freelancers and self-employed for insurance schemes and intellectual-property protection, and for that of the migrant workers, their rights in society and how these are respected.  There were also discussions on the future of tripartism under economic globalization and rapid technological changes.  Last, there is a demand to further strengthen in-school training in the foundational years so that the younger generation of Singaporeans are better prepared for work when they leave the school system.

Now, how do the foregoing relate to the Philippine situation?  As is well known, our industrialrelations system has been shaped by our reliance on the American model.  Organizing regular workers for the purpose of concluding a CBA for three years is the norm.  Under this system, the “non-regulars” (casuals, seasonal, project, managerial, supervisory and commission workers) are excluded.  With the regulars becoming fewer and fewer under economic globalization and flexible business arrangements, unionism has become an organization for a minority of workers, not for the majority.  And if one includes the vast number of workers in the informal sector, this minority becomes even distinctly an exclusive association of a few.

Isn’t it time to overhaul the existing industrial-relations system?  Isn’t it time to overhaul the Labor Code? Isn’t it time to look into new ways of empowering and organizing workers of all ranks, all collars, all ages and all genders— in all areas of  the economy, formal and informal?  After all, the Philippine Constitution, under Section 3, Article XIII, states that all workers have equal rights.