Unions can only be truly effective if they have strong political backing

People have criticised the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for being closely associated with the People’s Action Party (PAP) and argued that an independent trade union is more effective in representing the voices of workers.

In Singapore, you’ll see a Cabinet Minister doubling up as the Secretary-General of NTUC and this tradition has never really changed since the time NTUC was founded.

Devan Nair, who was a PAP stalwart, founded the NTUC in 1961. Ong Teng Cheong who took over in 1983, was both the Secretary-General and Deputy Prime Minister before he went on to become the President of Singapore. Lim Boon Heng and Lim Swee Say were also cabinet ministers while heading the NTUC.

Chan Chun Sing was the Minister for Social and Family Development before joining the NTUC, otherwise known as the Labour Movement.

You may find this close association unusual but it’s actually also happening around the world.

In fact, unions in many other countries have far more intricate relationships with political parties.  

Trade unions globally affiliated to political parties

If you notice the word “labour” in the names of political parties, chances are they are affiliated to trade unions.

For example, the Australian Labor Party was formed by trade unions in the 1980s. The affiliated unions influence party policy and its implementation by quietly lobbying through internal party structures.

They even account for 50% of delegates at federal and state party conferences that determine policy.

In Singapore, labour MPs (who hold leadership positions in the NTUC) only take up 8% of the PAP’s elected seats (7 out of 83 seats) in the Parliament.

In UK, 12 affiliated trade unions openly campaign within the Labour Party because they believe that the Labour party stands up for the needs of their members and their labour movement is stronger when they are campaigning together.

Trade unions can lobby for changes but they can only effect these changes if they work with the Government who formulate national policies. 

Without strong political backing, it would be difficult to get anything done

Trade unions in Botswana (a country in Southern Africa), for example, chose to remain relatively apolitical by not identifying with any particular ideology.

The leadership can link up with any political party and their individual union members are free to join any political party of their choice.

It may sound like a “noble and righteous” arrangement as that allows them to organise workers from different spectrums of lives with varying political inclinations.

However, this arrangement has caused their labour movement to remain narrowly focused over minute issues like “grumbling over monkey pay, acquisition of mobile phones and purchase of sanitary pads and airtime on credit”.

According to Associate Professor Kenneth Dipholo from the University of Botswana, he claimed that their trade unions’ ability to influence government policies is “close to level zero” and therefore, their Government has no obligation to advance the interests of labour.

He also said that their Government does not consult the unions when preparing the national budget and the labour movement must demand for a “legitimate role in influencing public policy direction and a stake in the policy making process”.

Success of Singapore

If you’ve been following Singapore Budget 2018, you might have heard or read that several labour MPs advocated for different segments of workers on issues concerning them. 

For example, labour MP Patrick Tay has been calling for the salary cap of $4,500 in the Employment Act (EA) to be removed to benefit an additional 430,000 PMEs to be entitled to employment terms such as paid sick leave and compensation for wrongful dismissals.

He repeated this call during Budget this year and it was finally accepted by Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say. The changes to the EA will kick in by April 1 next year.

If the Singapore Government does not consult the unions and take them seriously, the Labour Movement wouldn’t have been able to help formulate national policies that positively impact workers.

This is also the result of a strong symbiotic relationship between NTUC and PAP.

When the unions have a good sense of what the workers need, they will lobby for it in Parliament and influence their colleagues at the highest policy-making level.

In return, the Government will try to pursue sound national policies that promote growth and which further workers’ interests.

It’s a win-win situation for both parties in the symbiotic relationship.

Featured image credit: PAP