A leadership reshuffle under way in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), evident in the creation of a new tier in its upper echelons, should prove to be more than a corporate exercise. Consisting of a newly created position called assistant director-general, which is partly an expansion of the career path for NTUC senior staff, the change is also an attempt to attune the movement more closely to the needs of an increasingly diverse labour force. The labour movement's ability to respond to seismic shifts in the global employment landscape and their effects on Singapore will depend on how well it develops its talent base and puts a viable succession framework into enduring place.
To meet that challenge, the NTUC will need to strengthen both tracks of its leadership path: the elected union leaders' track and the management route. The interstitial role of assistant director-general should help to buttress the edifice of an institution whose institutional and political reach have long been equated with the viable prospects of labour in Singapore.
Those prospects are beset by uncertainty. Cyclical changes are par for the course for an economy, but structural change could endanger the social compact between labour and capital that is underwritten by the State. The rise of the gig economy dramatises the transition to what could become a new, uneasy normal. Admittedly, the gig economy empowers workers who enjoy the financial luxury of being able to decide when to work, for how long and for how much. For them, the gig market is a companionable mechanism which allows them to strike a personal balance between the exigencies of material need and the waiting call of leisure. For many more workers, however, the gig economy represents a dubious sanctuary of last resort, a place for those who cannot find permanent work along with its customary entitlements: medical benefits and provision for retirement and old age. At its worst, the gig economy foretells the economics of desperation for the unwanted of a wayward marketplace.
Unions are caught in a bind in these circumstances. If they move too far to the left, towards job protectionism, they will destroy the basis of economic growth that creates employment in the first place. However, if they do not move at all, their credibility with workers will be eroded to the point where the free-for-all of the market will be met by a freefall of labour relations. Unions need to come to terms with the disruption of economic orthodoxy, which is based ultimately on the notion that demand and supply will merge seamlessly in the larger interests of society. The NTUC, as the guardian of labour interests in Singapore, will have to keep working to protect workers from the vagaries of the times. If stronger within, it will be able to better meet the headwinds from without.