105 honoured for advancing workers' rights

(Above) Mr K. Karthikeyan was conferred the Comrade of Labour (Star) (Bar), the highest accolade given to unionists at this year's May Day Awards. (Left) Mr Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan received the Model Worker award yesterday. PHOTOS: NTUC
(Above) Mr K. Karthikeyan was conferred the Comrade of Labour (Star) (Bar), the highest accolade given to unionists at this year's May Day Awards. Mr Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan received the Model Worker award yesterday. PHOTOS: NTUC
(Above) Mr K. Karthikeyan was conferred the Comrade of Labour (Star) (Bar), the highest accolade given to unionists at this year's May Day Awards. (Left) Mr Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan received the Model Worker award yesterday. PHOTOS: NTUC
Mr K. Karthikeyan was conferred the Comrade of Labour (Star) (Bar), the highest accolade given to unionists at this year's May Day Awards. (above) Mr Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan received the Model Worker award yesterday. PHOTOS: NTUC

Veteran unionist K. Karthikeyan, 60, recalls how a decision to freeze wages in 1986 - a time when Singapore was reeling from its first post-independence recession - drove him to get involved in union work.

"Everyone was tightening their belts, saying that you can't give out bonuses and increments. But I was in the oil and petrochemical industry, and during the recession, we still made a lot of money," said Mr Karthikeyan, then a 26-year-old technician at the Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore in Pulau Ayer Merbau, now part of Jurong Island.

"I could not understand why we should still get zero bonus and zero increment. I started asking questions. I went to the managing director, who said only unions can ask questions. So I started a union."

In August 1986, the Singapore Petrochemical Complex Employees' Union (SPCEU) was born. Mr Karthikeyan eventually negotiated a collective agreement that saw company staff receive backdated bonuses, as well as wage increments.

Since becoming a full-time union leader in 1988, Mr Karthikeyan has worn many hats, such as NTUC vice-president, Nominated MP, and a committee chairman with the Workplace Safety and Health Council. His efforts to champion workers' interests have won him awards over the years.

Yesterday, he was conferred the Comrade of Labour (Star) (Bar), the highest accolade given to unionists at this year's May Day Awards. The 105 union leaders, workers and labour movement and tripartite partners receiving accolades were announced by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

In 2001, the SPCEU merged with the United Workers of Petroleum Industry, where Mr Karthikeyan is now executive secretary. Asked what keeps him going, the unionist said he gets great satisfaction from helping others - so much so that he has turned down many other jobs, such as roles in human resources.

"If you become a HR manager, and the boss tells you to retrench a hundred people, you have to do it. But as a union leader, I can go all out to make sure you are not retrenched... There is that happiness you get when you help solve someone's problem."

He recalls an old incident involving a forklift driver who had lost his leg as a result of diabetes. Noting that he was the family's sole breadwinner, Mr Karthikeyan spoke to HR and asked if they could offer the man's daughter a job - and they did.

He said he has been trained as an insurance agent and taxi driver, and completed numerous courses at the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute.

"There is an Indian saying that what you learn is only one handful of sand. You must keep on studying, keep on learning, keep on improving your skills."

Turning to the economy, which has been hard hit by Covid-19, he voiced concern about retrenchments and the difficulty of finding new jobs.

Receiving the Model Worker award yesterday was Aetos operations manager Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan, 64. He had joined the security firm more than 15 years ago, and worked his way up, improving his skills by enrolling in courses.

NTUC on May 16 honoured 29 organisations for their efforts to improve workers' wages, welfare and work prospects. A final group of awardees will be announced this month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2020, with the headline '105 honoured for advancing workers' rights'. Print Edition | Subscribe