June 2022 has been eventful. Across the world, many workers have gone on strike to voice their concerns about stagnating wages, inflation pains and job security issues. For example, the United Kingdom (UK) has seen strikes across several industries: from aviation to railway. The most recent workers going on strike are barristers, who are unhappy about their legal aid fees. These are all hurting the UK’s economy.
Britons in the aviation industry voiced deep unhappiness over the insufficient support from the British government. They were left to fend for themselves as the industry faced a severe shortage of workers – aviation industry workers are overworked. In addition, wages aren’t keeping up with inflation. Aviation workers across France’s Roissy and Orly regions, Netherlands and Belgium also saw aviation workers went on strike for pay and welfare-related reasons.
The UK is facing its largest nationwide railway strike in decades, with no signs of abating as June 2022 ends.
Thousands of workers from cleaners, signallers, maintenance workers and station staff walked out of their jobs, causing a massive paralysis in UK’s transport system, affecting other workers who commute daily via public transport. Then, in mid-June 2022, Canadian railway employees went on strike too.
Trouble does not end for the UK. Teachers and doctors also threatened to walk out alongside rail workers if the UK government failed to meet their demand for a pay rise. Strikes can spread if mismanaged, paralysing the entire country.
Singapore’s Industrial Relations
Singapore’s industrial relations in the 50s and 60s were a stark contrast to what it is today. Then, unemployment was widespread, working conditions were poor, and society was in unrest.
When the nation embarked on industrialisation, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) affiliated trade unions supported the Government’s call to abandon traditional adversarial unionism for a common goal – Industrial peace with justice.
Collaborative tripartism became Singapore’s form of tripartism.
The tripartite partners comprise the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), NTUC, and the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF). The labour movement acts responsibly, employers adopt a consultative stance, and the Government listens to the needs and wants of unions and employers. Together, the tripartite partners formed a functional model to further the interests of Singapore.
Peaceful labour-management relations have undeniably boosted Singapore’s economic competitiveness — which is what investors primarily look out for when evaluating the viability and outlook of investing in a country. Key issues tripartite partners follow closely include workers’ training and upgrading, fair and progressive employment practices, job re-creation and a flexible wage system.
Governmental support for industries is essential. When COVID-19 struck, the Singapore Government provided industries that were hard-hit such as the aviation and tourism industries. Even as industries begin to recover with the reopening of borders and loosening of Singapore’s vaccinated travel framework, the government continues to help the aviation industry by launching a new job portal for prospective workers to apply for roles.
The initiative spearheaded by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) along with the NTUC and the NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) is called the OneAviation Careers Hub. It is a one-stop platform that provides career and training advisory, counselling, and job facilitation.
The Legality of Strikes in Singapore
Contrary to popular and conventional beliefs, strikes are legal in Singapore. However, unions in Singapore see strikes as a ‘nuclear option’. Therefore, they should only be used if the situation reaches a point of no return. NTUC steps in before the point of no return to resolve issues for workers behind closed doors and preserve the relationship between unions and workers.
Trade is Singapore’s lifeline, and it has consistently advocated for free and open international trade. It is, therefore, imperative for Singapore to maintain a good relationship with domestic and international employers. Furthermore, Singapore is one of the top choices for multi-national corporations (MNCs) to set up their Asia headquarters due to Singapore’s excellent infrastructure and its role as a strategic gateway to the countries in the ASEAN and the Asia Pacific regions.
Suppose employers, especially international corporations – feel that it is increasingly difficult to sustain operations in Singapore due to soured and continued tensions between their management and workers. In that case, they could and will withdraw their operations in Singapore. As a result, workers lose their jobs, and the employer must stomach potential losses due to the withdrawal. It’s a lose-lose situation for both parties.
Tripartism: Not New
Tripartism is not unique to Singapore. Countries like Germany and Austria are pursuing similar arrangements. From the 2008 global financial crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic, countries like Singapore have found renewed relevance of its tripartite model in aiding their economic development. Tripartism has kept industrial relations peaceful and facilitated labour marker adjustments during these crises.
In contrast, countries like the US, UK, and others in the EU routinely see a breakdown of trust between businesses, labour and governments, exacerbating social tensions through unemployment and weakened economic growth. Countries should find a way that works best for them and not hop onto what is popular. What is popular is not necessarily always correct or appropriate for a given situation or context. Of course, this goes both ways: tripartism may not be possible for the US and UK due to pre-existing societal institutions. But one thing is sure: a collaborative model must be adopted to further the interests of workers and the country.