Can I be a union member if I am a professional, manager or executive? This and other NTUC Union Membership questions answered

Mr Patrick Tay, NTUC’s assistant secretary-general and labour Member of Parliament (MP), shares how NTUC is helping workers and why taking up union membership is a practical thing to do amid these uncertain times

NTUC’s assistant secretary-general and labour Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Tay has regular catch-ups with union leaders and members to hear their concerns and the challenges that they face. PHOTO: NTUC

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacted a mounting toll on the labour market as it continues to wreak havoc globally.

Retrenchment and unemployment figures are expected to continue to climb in the second half of the year, with the outlook being uncertain across many industries, says Mr Patrick Tay, NTUC's assistant secretary-general and labour MP.

NTUC and its affiliated unions are here to give a helping hand.

The calls for help from workers have been increasing in the past few months. Among other things, NTUC is helping to match displaced workers to new jobs through the NTUC Job Security Council; administering the NTUC Care Fund (Covid-19), which provides a one-off cash relief of up to $300 to eligible union members; and assisting with the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS), which disburses up to a total of $9,000 in cash over nine months to each eligible self-employed person.

One way NTUC is helping workers in these difficult times is through its affiliated unions. The unions work with companies to retain workers, negotiate retrenchment packages for affected union members, assist with job matching, help aggrieved members file claims for unfair dismissals with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and assist employees in their disputes with the management.

Mr Tay currently fronts programmes that help to protect workers' rights. He answers five questions about being a union member and how a union can help you, even if you are a PME (a term commonly used to refer to professionals, managers and executives).

1. Why should I become a union member? Am I a union member if I hold a Plus! card?

One key benefit of being an NTUC Union Member is that unions can speak up for workers and represent their rights and interests before the company.

In a recession like this, unions will work with management to cut costs to save jobs and avoid or minimise retrenchments. Unions will also help members resolve disputes with the management and negotiate retrenchment payouts if retrenchments are unavoidable.

Also, unionised companies that have collective agreements with the unions commonly provide for retrenchment benefit payments for union members. In contrast, an employee who is not a union member will not be eligible for such retrenchment payments if these are not included in the employee's employment contract.

Under normal circumstances, unions engage in collective bargaining for their members and push for employment terms over and above the legal requirements. These could include annual wage supplements, bonuses and salary increments.

The Plus! card is a Plus! Rewards Programme membership card for all customers of NTUC's Social Enterprises. Cardholders who are not Union members, will not be entitled to any Union membership privileges and benefits.

2. I am classified as a PME. Can I also join a union? How can a union help me as a PME?

It is a common belief that only rank-and-file workers can join a union, but this is not true - PMEs can join unions too.

Unions that have been accorded recognition by the company can represent PMEs collectively. Alternatively, they may also assist individual PMEs in the following instances:
(a) unfair dismissal;
(b) amount of retrenchment benefits;
(c) breaches of employment contracts;
(d) victimisation issues; and
(e) re-employment disputes.

Let me give you an example of how a union recently assisted a PME member facing an unfair dismissal. The company claimed that the worker had made a mistake on the job and wanted to terminate his employment.

The union negotiated on behalf of the member and obtained a positive outcome for the member. The company retracted its termination letter, accepted the member's resignation and waived the notice requirements.

3. Why does a worker need a union to fight for his rights when he can bring his complaint about wrongful dismissals and salary disputes directly to MOM?

We need to correct this misconception. While MOM oversees employment issues in Singapore, the individual worker cannot file wrongful dismissals or salary disputes with MOM on his or her own.

If you are not a union member and are facing either a wrongful dismissal or salary dispute, you would have to file a mediation request with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) and attend mediation first. If the parties are unable to resolve the dispute, they can then refer the matter to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT).

However, if you are a union member, your union can help you negotiate with your company. If the dispute is still not resolved after negotiations, the union can then help you file a claim with TADM and walk you through the process.

This means union members will have support and guidance from the union.

4. You shared that some PMEs had their employment terminated when they were, in fact, retrenched. What should workers look out for and how can NTUC help?

Let's break the answer down into the following areas.

First, what is a retrenchment?

Second, what is the difference between being contractually terminated and being retrenched?

Third, what should I do if I do not receive the payments due to me if I'm retrenched?

Lastly, how can NTUC help?

A retrenchment occurs when there is excess manpower and workers are made redundant. It could be due to the reorganisation of the company's work or a slowdown in business, such as during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Next, we consider the difference between termination and retrenchment.

Contractual termination occurs when the employer dismisses the worker with a notice period or pays a salary in lieu of notice under the employment contract. Apart from any unpaid salaries or reimbursement of claims, the company does not need to make any further payments to the worker.

On the other hand, when a worker is retrenched, there may be retrenchment benefits - payments given to employees to compensate them for the loss of employment. The problem is that some companies may retrench their employees, but couch it as termination to avoid paying a retrenchment package. This is commonly known as disguised retrenchment.

If you are a union member and think that you may be a victim of disguised retrenchment, please approach your union for assistance. As far as possible, the union will work with the company to obtain retrenchment benefits on your behalf. If the company remains uncooperative, the union may make an application for arbitration with the Industrial Arbitration Court. These benefits will not apply if you are not a member of the union.

5. What is one thing you want to tell PMEs today?

We understand your concerns - chief among which is a worry that you are unable to secure and retain a good job, especially in the current uncertain economic situation.

I want to encourage more PMEs to join NTUC so that we can serve and protect your interests and strengthen the collective voice for PMEs.

We will work together, with you, and for you - because every worker matters.

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