NTUC misses membership target of one million

The membership target set in 2005 was a "stretch target", said labour chief Chan Chun Sing.
The membership target set in 2005 was a "stretch target", said labour chief Chan Chun Sing. PHOTO: ST FILE

It is unusual in Singapore for targets to be set and missed, so the labour movement admits it may have been stretching itself too far when it set a target 10 years ago to have a million union members by about now.

Yesterday, labour chief Chan Chun Sing conceded that with its current 888,000 union members - including students and retirees - the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) will fall short of the one million mark this year.

The target set in 2005 was a "stretch target", said Mr Chan at a media briefing as he sought to downplay the missed mark.

"It's not just the numbers that we're concerned with, it's also the quality (of the union network)," said Mr Chan, who took over as secretary-general in May.

Some segments of workers that the NTUC is trying hard to recruit as members are the swelling ranks of contract workers, freelancers and professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

But PMEs are not drawn to only traditional union services such as collective bargaining and would prefer services that boost their careers, said Mr Chan, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Unions have to evolve to meet the expectations of these workers, he added.

To raise its recruitment game further, the NTUC is planning to tie up with more professional bodies to tout two-for-one union memberships. Under the scheme, members of professional bodies and clubs will automatically become associate union members if their associations sign up with the labour movement.

There are 22 professional bodies, such as the Singapore Human Resources Institute and Singapore Professional Golfers' Association, under the scheme.

The blight in the membership mark was the only blemish in an otherwise upbeat four-year report card that the NTUC presented to some 1,200 representatives from the labour movement, Government and employers at the Downtown East resort yesterday.

In it, the NTUC said 616 unionised companies had responded to its call and started re-employing workers until the age of 67, ahead of formal legislation.

The progressive wage model, which it championed and which ties wage increases to skills upgrading, has benefited more than 100,000 workers in 300 unionised companies.

Its help centres for PMEs have also helped some 18,000 workers find jobs since 2013, and sent close to 170,000 for training.

Mr Chan said that the NTUC faces three challenges in the future: dealing with changes to the business environment, to the job market and to workers' expectations.

To overcome these challenges, the three-way partnership between the Government, employers and unions will have to evolve too, he said.

This requires younger civil servants, unionists and business leaders to work together for tripartism to permeate through "all levels and sectors", he noted.

The NTUC started a three-day National Delegates Conference yesterday for union leaders to review their achievements in the last four years and draw up plans for the next four.

Tomorrow, it will elect a new 21-member central committee - its highest decision-making body - to implement the plans.

While the NTUC may miss its one million mark this year, Mr Chan said it is not giving up.

"We are still doing our best and we are going in the correct direction. The trajectory is still there and one day we'll probably meet it," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'NTUC misses membership target of one million'. Print Edition | Subscribe