May Day

Union leaders 'must get workers to upgrade skills'

At the May Day Rally yesterday were (from left) Singapore National Employers Federation president Robert Yap, labour chief Chan Chun Sing, Mrs Lee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, NTUC president Mary Liew, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say and Deputy Pr
At the May Day Rally yesterday were (from left) Singapore National Employers Federation president Robert Yap, labour chief Chan Chun Sing, Mrs Lee, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, NTUC president Mary Liew, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Labour chief says NTUC aims to build a pipeline of leaders, including from the ranks of PMEs

Union leaders must mobilise workers to upgrade skills, and union leadership must evolve to be more representative of the changing industry and workforce profile.

Labour chief Chan Chun Sing issued this call to unionists at yesterday's May Day Rally, his first since becoming secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) last year.

"It is not about asking people to give us extra salaries and extra benefits just because we ask," he said.

WHEN PM ASKED: SO, CAN I JOIN THE UNION?

In the past, people thought that the labour movement was only about the rank and file. Today, when we talk about working people, we include more than the rank and file.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked me this trick question. He said: 'How do you define working people?' I thought I gave him a smart-alec answer. I said: 'Sir, anybody that collects a pay cheque is a working person.'

Then he asked me the next question: 'So can I join the union?'

I thought about it.

'Well, Prime Minister, we'll most certainly welcome you to join the union. But I don't think we can provide you with collective agreement and bargaining.'

We asked ourselves, just as we have tiered services for different types of working people, what services can we provide our PM?

Career development - that's a bit tough. We probably also don't want to develop your career too much because we want you to stay in your current job.

Then we thought, ah, the new generation needs networking opportunities. That we can provide you.

So networking, we can definitely provide you, but not collective agreement and bargaining... Just in case your Cabinet, our Cabinet, starts to have collective agreement and bargaining with you.

MR CHAN CHUN SING, sharing PM Lee's recent question to him and his response at the May Day Rally.

"(It) has to do with a lot of work behind the scenes in trying to lift the productivity of our workers so that they can enjoy a good salary to take care of their families."

In a speech to 1,000 unionists and guests, Mr Chan said NTUC will work with post-secondary education institutions and private service providers to increase the number of training modules accessible to workers. Union leaders must also persuade workers to tap resources like the $1 billion worth of SkillsFuture credits to upgrade their skills and help themselves.

"There is no point in the Government putting $1 billion in the kitty if we are unable to mobilise each and every worker to go and do what's right," he said. The Government is also contributing through schemes such as the Inclusive Growth Programme, which has been extended "a few more years", he announced.

The $100 million fund supports the adoption of technology and redesign of work processes, such as centralised dishwashing in the cleaning sector, which help low-wage workers earn more as they take on higher-skilled roles.

Besides focusing on training and productivity in the year ahead, NTUC will work on providing a safe environment for local and foreign workers as well as fair avenues for dispute management. It will study best practices from around the world on issues like medical benefits and retirement systems to see what can be tailored to Singapore.

NTUC is also growing its network to represent workers in more industries and job levels, and trying to improve communication between leaders and members. Said Mr Chan: "The bigger we are, the tighter we must be."

To facilitate this, a new leadership council has been set up, led by NTUC deputy secretary-general Heng Chee How. It also aims to build a pipeline of leaders, including from the ranks of professionals, managers and executives (PMEs). Mr Heng told reporters: "This takes very careful, systematic, purposeful investing, you cannot leave it to chance."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Union leaders 'must get workers to upgrade skills''. Print Edition | Subscribe