Singapore Table of Contents
Industrial relations in Singapore reflected the symbiotic relationship between the labor movement and the dominant political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), a relationship rooted in a political history of confrontation that evolved into consensus building. Trade unions were a principal instrument in the anticolonial struggle used by both the democratic socialist PAP and the communists with whom they cooperated uneasily. In 1961 the Singapore Trade Union Congress split into the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the noncommunist National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). The NTUC quickly became the leading trade union organization, largely because of its effectiveness and government support. Moreover, in 1963, when SATU led a general strike against the government, the pro-communist trade organization was banned and many of its leaders were arrested.
Strong personal ties between leaders of the PAP and the NTUC formed the background of the symbiotic relationship, which was institutionalized by formal links. In 1980 NTUC Secretary General Ong Teng Cheong was made a minister-without-portfolio, and a NTUCPAP Liaison Committee comprising top leaders of both organizations was established. As the "second generation" political leaders assumed more government leadership following the 1984 election, Ong was named second deputy prime minister. Following the September 1988 general elections, the NTUC reaffirmed its close relationship with the PAP by expelling officers of NTUC-affiliated unions who had run for Parliament on opposition tickets. The NTUC and the PAP shared the same ideology, according to NTUC officials, so that active support of the opposition was inconsistent with membership in NTUC-related institutions. Workers who did not support the PAP were advised to form their own unions.
The legal-institutional framework also exerted control over labor conditions. In mid-1968, in an attempt to woo private foreign investment, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew successfully pushed through Parliament a new employment bill and amendments to the 1960 Industrial Relations Act. In order to make factors such as working hours, conditions of service, and fringe benefits predictable, and thus make businesses sufficiently attractive for investors, trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that accounted for most earlier labor disputes. To spread work and help alleviate the effects of unemployment, overtime was limited and the compulsory retirement age was set at fifty-five. Lee's actions, which the militant unions opposed but could do little about, were part of the government's efforts to create in Singapore the conditions and laissez-faire atmosphere that had enabled Hong Kong to prosper. Such measures, in the government's view, were necessary to draw business to the port. Lee stressed survival, saying: "No one owes Singapore a living."
Rapid economic growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s reduced unemployment and resulted in the amendment of these laws. A National Wages Council was formed in 1972 and many of its recommendations adopted (see Wage Policies , this ch.). By 1984 a twelve-hour shift was permitted. In order to enlarge the limited labor pool, in 1988 changes were introduced in Central Provident Fund policies reducing payment rates for those over fifty-five, thereby encouraging employers to raise the retirement age to sixty. The discipline imposed on, and expected of, the labor force was accompanied by provisions for workers' welfare. The Industrial Arbitration Court existed to settle disputes through conciliation and arbitration. The court, established in 1960, played a major role in settling labor-management disputes through binding decisions based on formal hearings and through mediating voluntary agreements. Adjudication of disputes between employers and nonunion workers came under the separate jurisdiction of the Labour Court. To help job seekers, the government maintained a free employment service serving both job seekers and employers. A comprehensive code governed the safety and health of workers and provided a system of workers' compensation. Under the Ministry of Labour, the Factory Inspectorate enforced these provisions in factories, where more than 35 percent of Singapore's workers were employed in 1988.
The trade unions' role and structure also had been modified. In the 1970s, the NTUC began establishing cooperatives in order to promote the welfare of its members. In the 1980s, omnibus unions were split along industry lines and further split into house unions to facilitate better labor-management relations and promote company loyalty. In the 1982 Amendment to the Trade Union Act, the role of trade unions was defined as promoting good industrial relations between workers and employers; improving working conditions; and improving productivity for the mutual benefit of workers, employers, and the country.
Union membership declined steadily beginning in the late 1970s. In 1988 there were some 83 registered unions, with about 1,000 branch locals, representing one-quarter of the organizable work force. This number was down from ninety unions in 1977. Increasing emphasis on developing white-collar, capital-intensive, and service-oriented industries was partly responsible for the union membership decline. The unions were countering the decline by offering attractive packages to bring in new members.
Data as of December 1989
Singapore Table of Contents