No Playbook for A Miraculous Relief for Aviation Industry

Changi Airport, circa 1980s

Came across the photo of Changi Airport when it first opened in the 80s and it brought back a strong sense of nostalgia. Today, amid threat of more virulent strains, Changi Airport has tightened Covid-19 measures with movement curbs.

The pandemic has wrecked havoc, and Singapore’s aviation industry is not spared. Like many Singaporeans, I can’t wait for the borders to open up so we can travel again. But this is undoubtedly one of the most tumultuous periods for the aviation industry as they struggle to keep afloat. I shudder to think of the mounting anxieties of workers in the industry. It’s been more than a year.

Although Singapore’s economy has improved over 2020, things are not exactly looking rosy for the aviation industry yet. PM Lee cautioned on the recovery of the aviation industry during the May Day Rally 2021. 


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Thankfully, the unions have been hard at work, fighting to save livelihoods and supporting workers in the industry. From the outbreak of the pandemic locally since February 2020, NTUC and its unions have stepped up efforts to aid workers in the aviation industry. On top of the $4 billion Stabilization and Support package to help firms across different industries provided by the government, NTUC has provided another $500,000 for unionised companies in the aviation sector to tap on — to send their workers for training. This will help them pivot and prepare for when business demands recover.


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In July 2020, the unions intervened when it was discovered that Eagle Services Asia, an aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul firm, had carried out unfair retrenchment of its workers by not abiding to the due process of retrenchment — before talks with the aerospace and aviation unions were complete. NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng shared that NTUC, the relevant unions and the company was engaged in tense negotiations to secure a “fair and dignified retrenchment” if the situation that the job(s) cannot be saved. After the talks with Eagle Services Asia concluded, it conceded that it could have better managed and ameliorated the retrenchment process. 


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Union Leader, Ong Hwee Liang on the Challenges of Workers in The Industry

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is also fortunate to have union leader, Mr Ong Hwee Liang, taking care of workers’ wages, welfare and work prospects.  Mr Ong is a veteran unionist who had served the Labour Movement for almost 3 decades! Having experienced unfair treatment at the workplace firsthand, it motivated Hwee Liang to become a unionist to speak up for workers’ rights, to represent workers when negotiating with the management to achieve an optimal outcome. He recalled that COVID-19 was not the first challenge that the aviation industry went through. There was the Asian Financial Crisis, September 11 attacks in the US, and the 2003 SARS pandemic that affected global air travel and therefore affected the aviation industry by different extents. 

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Mr Ong shared that the industry has accumulated experience from past crises, and along with tripartite guidelines, the industry was able to navigate through the crisis. But this crisis is unprecedented. It is fortunate that early initiatives such as the SMART strategy (Supporting jobs, Matching workers to jobs, Advocacy, cReation of jobs Training and competency-building) has cushioned the devastating impact of the pandemic on the industry. Through this strategy, the industry turns crisis into opportunity by using the downtime to upskill workers. 

Since the start of the pandemic early in 2020, workers of the aviation industry have voiced to Mr Ong that they are worried about the prospects of the industry. Workers’ wages have been cut at varying degrees — even until today. Hwee Liang could empathise with the sense of fatigue amongst the workers, and works with companies in the industry to improve morale at the workplace. 

He also shared that amidst the pandemic, there have been workers leaving the aviation industry, especially the younger ones. It was not entirely unexpected to him — some may have young families and elderly parents to support. His biggest concern? Union members in their 50s and 60s. Workers in this age group find it tough to land another job. However, he promises that the union will be alongside to help them in making informed decisions. If they do decide to press on in the same industry, the union will help them embrace lifelong learning and upskilling to secure their place in the industry and the economy. 

The Days Ahead

For the Aviation industry, its recovery depends on how the pandemic evolves. The best bet is to continue to invest in staff upskilling and automation technologies where possible. Unfortunately, there is no magic solution. I look forward to the day the industry will soar again. It will come.