During the early days of Singapore’s independence in the 60s, industrial actions such as strikes, which disrupted daily lives and crippled the economy, were common. The NTUC Modernisation Seminar in 1969 was a turning point when the Labour Movement made a critical decision to move away from a confrontational to a cooperative approach with employers. NTUC and our affiliates are committed to working with management through good and bad times with the longer term view that workers must be rewarded should they stay with companies to ride out tough times by taking short term pains. At the bipartite level, the common experience of unions and management working together, and the trust that has been built has reaped positive outcomes. Beyond just unions and management, Singapore’s unique model of tripartism — which sees unions, employers and Government working together — has also played a key role in the harmonious labour landscape and success we enjoy today.
In 1972, the National Wages Council (NWC) was formed as Singapore underwent rapid industrialisation and expectations of wage increases mounted. With representatives from tripartite partners, the body’s purpose is to formulate wage guidelines that are in line with long-term economic growth. The NWC laid much of the ground work for the 1980s wage reforms and restructuring that saw unions and businesses working together. The flexible wage system includes the Annual Wage Supplement and Monthly Variable Component, and moves away from seniority-based system towards one that is based on performance. These are but some of the resulting measures that have ensured wages increase enough to accord workers a reasonable standard of living.
Alongside wage increases, the Labour Movement invests efforts to improve worker productivity and skills for the benefit of both employers and employees. With funding support from the Government, NTUC works closely with companies to boost productivity through the $100 million Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) that saw some 100,000 low-wage workers benefitting with better skills and wages. There is also WorkPro which supports employers who adopt progressive workplace practices.
Achieving continued employability so as to keep workers relevant to changing demands and the labour supply growing is another area of cooperation between union and employers. To that end, schemes like the Skills Re-development Programme in 1996; National Skills Recognition System in 2000; Employability Skills System in 2004; Workforce Skills Qualification in 2005; and Job Recreation Programme in 2005 were devised. NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) was established in 2008 to assist in job placement and skills training.
During the 2008/2009 global financial crisis, all these efforts came into sharp relief when the Labour Movement called companies to “cut costs to save jobs” and organised “Upturn the Downturn” workshops to stave off retrenchment. Jobs were saved and mutual trust fostered. The collective effort kept total unemployment at 3.3% in June 2009, below the peak of 4.8% in September 2003 due to the SARS outbreak.
In this decade, the focus is on broadening tripartism to ensure inclusivity — the re-employment of older workers, and the retention and re-entry of women in the workforce — as well as deepening cooperation at the sectorial level to support the implementation of key economic initiatives for a future-ready workforce. Sectoral tripartite committees in all the key sectors — partnerships among unions, employers and trade associations and chambers, and Government agencies — are vital to the realisation of SkillsFuture, a national programme aims at developing every Singaporean to his/her fullest potential.
 Seasonally adjusted overall unemployment. Source: Manpower Ministry, “Labour Market, Third Quarter 2009”