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Chatting with Lim Swee Say Part 1

So we have Mr Lim Swee Say weighing in on productivity today on ST page 1. Do I hear a yawn? We’ve been hearing so much about how low our productivity is and how we should be raising this by turning to manpower-saving devices and training to a high level that I’m not sure anyone can say anything new anymore.

Except, of course, if the G throws in yet another acronym announcing yet another fund for SMEs to take advantage of or for low-wage workers to enjoy. But I’m going to listen a little harder to Mr Lim because the labour movement has in recent time been doing what it should be doing: focusing on its core mission of protecting the workers. And also because I had a long chat with him about the NTUC to clarify some of its workings. (No, I have not been brainwashed and no, he did NOT give me NTUC Fairprice vouchers)

I’ve never been a fan of the NTUC. I recall how last year at a dialogue on fair employment practices, nobody in the room raised the role of the labour movement in ensuring equal employment opportunities for foreigners and locals. It would have been natural, I thought, for workers to say that this should be something to be taken up by the NTUC, instead of being a Government-led process. What does it say about the NTUC’s image with the people?

In recent time, however, the NTUC seems to have been weighing in quite heavily on the issue of wages and the protection of workers’ rights. Like how it wrangled with employers in the National Wages Council to get an absolute quantum increase for low wage workers. Like how it’s been getting more workers unionised. Like how it is pushing for the progressive wage ladder for certain industries. I tell myself that it is acting more like a union these days, and less like a social organisation. I told Mr Lim that too. He, being a nice man, overlooked my condescension.

Mr Lim said the NTUC has a higher unionisation rate than in OECD countries. Over the past year or so, it got 95 firms to agree to let their workers join unions, boosting its membership numbers from 770,000 last year to 830,000. It seems that two were reluctant to do so and the union members went into “organising’’ mode, waylaying workers outside the gate to conduct a secret ballot. How cloak and dagger, I thought! I also thought to myself: Why would any firm object to the rather tame union that Singapore has?

It’s a question I posed to Mr Lim. He said he met a foreign boss of a very, very, very big company who didn’t want a union in-house. He saw no reason for this since he is a good employer who rewards and trains his workers well. There was no need for a union to stick its nose in.

Mr Lim’s answer to the man floored me. He cited three reasons which got the boss to say OK to letting the union in:
a. Recruitment and retrenchment: It was the labour movement which placed his workers, through e2i. And if he ever had to retrench his workers, the union would help place them in other jobs. As a good employer, he must surely be concerned for his worker’s welfare
b. Training. If the company is unionised and meets certain industry standards, the union would help him pay for the training of its workers.
c. Stretching the dollar. His workers might be happy with their salaries but if they are union members, they would be entitled to benefits that will further stretch their dollar.

A rather bad thought crossed my mind: Hmm. No wonder bosses and unions seem to be in cahoots! You don’t cause trouble. Shouldn’t you cause some trouble? Are employers always so nice? And what of the unionised workers themselves, what do they gain?

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In this instance, I think the NTUC does itself a disservice by not trumpeting what it does on behalf of workers in terms of its core mission. What is “organising workers’’? How does collective bargaining take place? Do workers know that whatever the union negotiates with bosses only applies to members – unless the bosses extend it out of “goodwill’’. Ditto for retrenchment benefits to be paid out? What, in other words, do union members get that non-unionised members don’t? What is worker protection?

Here, he referred me to the Industrial Arbitration Court. Last month, the Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union and China Airlines Limited argued over the salary ranges for bargainable employees in the proposed collective agreement. The union wanted an increase in the maximum of the salary ranges, while the company wanted to raise only the minimum. It’s still pending.

Last year, the Singapore Industrial & Services Employees Union asked the court to order First Defense Services to pay workers an annual salary increment of 5 per cent with effect from 1 Jul 2011, or alternatively a one-off lump sum equal to a month’s salary. The Court decided that the company should pay a built-in increment of $50 on the monthly basic salary of employees earning up to and including $2,000 per month and a built-in increment of 2.5 per cent of the monthly basic salary for employees earning above $2,000 per month.

Other unions have gone along this route although not all were successful. The Singapore Catering Services, Staffs & Workers Trade Union, for example, went to court on behalf of an ex-employee of Hollandse Club over termination of service and reimbursement of medical expenses. The court dismissed the case.

Mr Lim didn’t say so but I think he believes I’ve been pretty myopic about the role of the trade union in Singapore. It isn’t about just representing people who are unionised, but raising the salaries and ensuring the welfare of all workers across the board. That’s why he’s been weighing in on productivity, trying to encourage early adopters to make the move towards labour-saving devices so that others can see the benefits. That’s the only way higher salaries can be sustained, he said, besides mandating wage increases for low-wage workers or getting the G to keep giving Workfare Improvement Supplement for low wage workers in cash and in their CPF.
Before you yawn, here is one interesting project I thought worth highlighting known as the Inclusive Growth Programme. Can bosses of SMEs which employ a lot of manual workers please, ahem, take note.

It works this way:
A company spots some ultra-new labour saving device but can’t afford it. It can go to NTUC which will pay for 80 per cent of the cost of the machine. As for the rest of the bill, it can go get it from the Productivity Improvement Council. In other words, it has obtained the machine for free. But after buying and training workers (this is subsidised too) to use them, it has to commit to raising the pay of the workers by at least 10 per cent. How come? Because the company would need fewer workers with the device. Mr Lim reckoned that the wages of 70,000 workers have been raised this way over the past three years.

The hope is that other companies in the same business would see what’s happening and do the same. And no, it doesn’t mean the union will fund everyone who buys the machine. Hence, this is a reward for early adopters. Seems that a noodle maker got a noodle packing device this way. A couple of hotels also managed to get a pump which lifts beds, a great help for chambermaids.

But what of those who get laid off then? I suppose it will be the foreigners who get laid off first. And possibly, just possibly, locals will be more attracted to the jobs.

Such a slow process, I thought. Well, the faster progression will be for cleaners, some 45,000 in some 900 companies. Starting Sept 1. Mr Lim then told me the story of how he got involved over the issue of cleaners’ pay. It was while he was at a hawker centre.

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Tomorrow: Mr Lim and the hawker centre cleaners

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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