Amelia Tan

Will NTUC's white-collar push work?

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on Dec 4, 2014

They are professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) about as far removed from the grime of labouring toil as you can imagine. Yet, they too are workers. And now, like their blue-collar "brothers", they are to get collective union representation.

In quite a major image change for Singapore's rank-and-file champion, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), these white-collar office-types will be able to come on board under an amendment to the Industrial Relations Act.

Currently, the Act states that blue-collar unions can represent executives only as individuals without collective bargaining rights, but the change - which may occur by the second quarter of next year - will allow unions to represent them as a group.

The NTUC wants the change because it will help unions stay relevant in the face of a changing workforce and declining influence.

Indeed, it may be a pre-emptive move, going by trends globally, where - unlike in Singapore currently - unions are grappling with declining membership and rising unpopularity. In the United States, a Gallup poll in August showed that 53 per cent of Americans approved of labour unions, down from 70 per cent in the 1960s. And a Pew survey in February found that just 11.3 per cent of "wage and salary" workers had union membership, down from 20.1 per cent in 1983.

In Singapore, however, the NTUC - the top union body, which also has public sector workers under its purview - has managed to grow its overall membership by 7.8 per cent, from 770,000 last year to 830,000 now. This beat the previous year's 5.5 per cent growth.

Still, one trend in the US highlights that is reflected in Singapore is the changing nature of the workforce - there, professionals account for 62 per cent of the workforce, up from 15 per cent in 1977 when there were more blue-collar workers.

In other words, the traditional power base for labour unions has shrunk significantly.

PME figures have been rising here, too, over the decades - today, 53.1 per cent of the resident workforce hold such jobs. The number of blue-collar workers, who form the bulk of unions, has fallen from 54 per cent in 2004 to 46.9 per cent now.

No wonder then that, to stay relevant, the NTUC would like to put those burgeoning white-collar workers under its umbrella. But changing the law to enable this is only the first step.

For while NTUC wants those executives, do they want NTUC?

After all, what's in it for them?

The relative job mobility and higher education levels of white- collar workers mean that many are confident enough to raise workplace issues directly with their human resource departments - or they may simply decide to leave for another job, knowing that - at the moment, anyway - they can easily get another.

Also, some PMEs may baulk at being represented as a group by the unions, Nominated MP and labour economist Randolph Tan points out.

He says two factors determine whether workers will support collective representation: if the workers in the group have uniform working conditions; and if they are very different - for example in terms of pay or education levels - from the management they are negotiating against.

"They (PMEs) are not - and indeed, may not wish to be seen as - different from management," says Associate Professor Tan, who teaches at UniSIM.

Unions do recognise that some PMEs may not want collective representation, and are working with companies to sign memorandums of understanding, instead. These documents cover issues such as work practices and annual increments.

However, NTUC assistant secretary-general Cham Hui Fong told reporters last week that the changes will have real impact only if the labour movement can convince PMEs to join the unions.

"We do not want this (change in the Industrial Relations Act) to be just another exercise, when we can represent them but the PMEs are not coming forward to join us," she said.

So far NTUC has not done too badly in attracting PMEs.

As of August, it has 238,000 resident PME members compared to last year's 215,000.

But almost half are members who join for the lifestyle benefits, including discounts and club memberships, and cannot be directly represented by the unions.

Diverse workplace issues

ANOTHER issue that rears its head is whether NTUC has bitten off more than it can chew. After all, confident, well-educated professionals are much harder to organise as a group compared to blue-collar workers, whose concerns tend to be centred on pay.

As Mr Patrick Tay, who heads the PME unit in NTUC, puts it: "PMEs are a diverse group and their issues are more complex than rank-and-file workers."

The issues that PMEs raise, run the gamut from progressing in their careers, to retrenchments and getting better performance bonuses.

Mr Tay, who is also NTUC's assistant secretary-general, notes that understanding and dealing with these issues is a resource-intensive process.

Political watcher Eugene Tan, a law don at Singapore Management University, questions if the labour movement can adapt quickly enough to deal with this diverse group.

"Can trade unions represent PMEs in different industries so that the specific needs and interests can be catered to, rather than a blanket PME representation?" asks Assistant Professor Tan, a former Nominated MP.

And what about the employers of these white-collar workers, especially as some are foreign firms drawn to Singapore because of its lack of union militancy? They worry whether the new push will result in difficult industrial relations.

Dr Robert Yap, president of the Singapore National Employers Federation, told reporters on the sidelines of an industrial relations seminar last week that multinational corporations (MNCs) tend to be apprehensive about the growing influence of unions.

"They (MNC management) prefer to run the companies freely. We need to help them see the bigger picture of the benefits of tripartism in Singapore," he said.

Such resistance by employers is partly why the tripartite committee - made up of unions, the Government and employer groups - in charge of reviewing the Act announced guidelines to help unions and firms prepare for the changes.

The committee said some key criteria were kept flexible deliberately, to give unions and firms the space to tailor their policies to meet the different needs of executives.

Its recommendations offer two broad benchmarks - salary levels and executive staff proportions - for unions and firms to refer to when deciding which executives can be represented as a group.

The guidelines do not specify exact numbers. They also recommend that senior management and staff with decision-making powers on industrial matters be excluded from union representation, to avoid a conflict of interest.

Still, as sales manager K.H Tan, 42, says: "Some workers are worried that their bosses may think they are trying to challenge their company's management if they join unions."

Union leaders acknowledge the difficulties the labour movement faces. "We are going into uncharted territory," NTUC's Ms Cham told reporters last week. "This is quite a trying period. We need to prepare our own union leaders, our own practitioners to better appreciate the kind of issues they (PMEs) face."

However, academics say NTUC can make PMEs sit up if it has tangible solutions to key problems.

They suggest three areas of focus for NTUC: get employers to ensure work-life balance, take care of the needs of the growing number of retrenched PMEs; and bargain for better re-employment terms for older workers.

Prof Randolph Tan says a union should be set up for former PMEs who have to take up blue-collar jobs such as becoming taxi drivers or security guards.

"The move from a PME role to a non-PME role is challenging - they should have a union which advocates for them in terms of conditions they face in moving across industry and job roles," he says.

The amended Industrial Relations Act will give the blue-collar unions the ability to represent PMEs as a group on disputes in retrenchment benefits.

Indeed, more degree holders are getting laid off as they find their skills obsolete due to rapid technological advancements. Recent studies by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on retrenchment reveal that degree holders made up 39 per cent of resident workers laid off last year.

Another key area where unions can help PMEs in is convincing employers to reduce excessive work hours, says Prof Eugene Tan. Unions can play a key role in ensuring work-life balance, given that it is a difficult issue to legislate, he adds.

Also, academics suggest that unions must step up their representation of older workers and bargain for better re-employment terms. "Even with the re-employment laws, ageism still exists," says Prof Eugene Tan. The amendment to Industrial Relations Act will also allow unions to represent executives on re-employment issues. But even before this, the law was updated in 2002 to allow rank-and-file unions to represent executives in unfair dismissals, disputes in retrenchment benefits and breaches in job contracts.

The NTUC may initially have its work cut out - convincing PMEs used to steering their own careers that it can get a better deal for them.

But as these professionals try and handle an ever-changing, increasingly globalised workplace, a labour movement that has already transformed itself to match these trends and address their special needs will hold some collective appeal.

This story was originally published in The Straits Times on Dec 4, 2014