Keeping the peace on the labour front

Tripartism is an institution that has underpinned the Singapore economy and survived downturns through decades of change. Avoiding two extreme models - exploitation of workers in the name of growth, and adversarial trade unionism in the name of labour rights - tripartism brings in the state to hold the ring between capital and labour in a symbiotic system based on fairness and trust.

In invoking tripartism in his May Day message yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drew attention to its abiding importance in building a vibrant economy characterised by equity. An economy in transition, which is upgrading qualitatively and expanding less quickly than before, demands that employers and employees work together even more closely to maximise opportunities. For workers, upgrading their skills holds the key not just to better jobs but also to job security. For employers, investing in workers and utilising their talent to raise productivity will determine the profitability and survivability of companies. Singapore enjoys a competitive advantage over countries where adversarial labour relations, spilling over into strikes and unrest, define the culture of work. By contrast, the tripartite ethos has become second nature here. It needs to be preserved so that Singapore can build on the economic success that has come to define it.

Within this tripartite framework, it is welcome that greater attention is being paid to the protection of labour rights. The labour tribunal for all local employees regardless of how much they earn, proposed by the Ministry of Manpower, is one initiative. Another is a mediation panel, handling disputes between professionals who are members of unions and their employers, which is under review. These mechanisms will extend the benefits of dispute resolution to employees as the employment landscape changes. Employers who treat workers fairly have nothing to fear from them. Employees who have reason to believe that they have been treated unfairly will have recourse to mechanisms that help make the tripartite framework meaningful. Labour relations as a whole will gain from the continued balancing of the interests of workers and employers.

A change of mindset, too, will help. Workers who demand respect, and rightly so, at their places of work sometimes forget, as customers, to extend the same courtesy to those who serve them. They, too, are workers. Hence the focus of the National Trades Union Congress on customers, who should not see those providing a service as servants. May Day is an occasion to celebrate the dignity of labour at home and abroad. That dignity, from the work of professionals to that of table-cleaners at hawker centres, applies to all.