NTUC aims for 1.5m members by 2030

NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng speaking at the National Delegates Conference at Orchid Country Club on Oct 16, 2019.
NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng speaking at the National Delegates Conference at Orchid Country Club on Oct 16, 2019.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Labour chief says it must innovate to stay relevant, raise mindshare among young

The labour movement has set what its chief calls a "bold, ambitious" target of reaching 1.5 million members by 2030, even though it has yet to meet its previous target of one million members.

Union membership here has grown over the past four years, but it has tapered recently, and the labour movement must innovate and digitalise to stay relevant to workers, said NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng.

"In representation and relevance, the strategic performance indicator is membership numbers," he said at a media briefing yesterday after the close of the National Delegates' Conference (NDC).

"If unions don't have that kind of strength and presence, workers don't have that kind of protection."

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has an "aspirational timeline" of reaching the target of 1.5 million members by 2025, but will be happy to reach it by 2030, given the uncertain environment, Mr Ng added.

The NDC is held once every four years for union leaders to discuss the NTUC's plans for the next four years and to elect a new central committee.

About 400 union leaders at the NDC unanimously agreed on the strategy and membership target.

There were 943,000 NTUC members last year, up from 896,200 in 2015. Though this is still shy of the target of one million members which NTUC had aimed to reach by 2015, it is about 30 per cent of the workforce here.

In comparison, the average rate of unionisation in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries has fallen to about 16 per cent, down from about 30 per cent in 1985, Mr Ng said in a speech during the NDC opening ceremony on Tuesday.

In the United States, the rate is around 10 per cent, while in Malaysia, the rate is around 7 per cent, he said.

Mr Ng, a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said the labour movement has to raise its "mindshare" among younger workers.

He outlined how as the workforce ages, new technologies take root and a greater share of workers become professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), the labour movement must innovate in the way it runs three key areas: union business, membership and training.

First, it is trying out new union models, such as representing both rank-and-file and PME staff together, as in the Banking and Financial Services Union and the Supply Chain Employees' Union.

But beyond this, there could be digital unions, where most of the interactions between unions and workers are done virtually.

Also, although the number of retrenchments here is still low, workers' anxieties are high, said Mr Ng.

NTUC is therefore studying how to start a "work security task force" to reduce the window between retrenchments and placements, while helping companies to reduce the costs of hiring and firing.

Employment and Employability Institute chief executive Gilbert Tan will oversee this, said Mr Ng.

Second, NTUC will look at family memberships to better meet workers' needs throughout different life stages, said Mr Ng. More details will be revealed later.

NTUC must continue to see how to partner the Government "to ease the issues of an ageing population, ease the burdens of the double-sandwiched Singaporeans, and hopefully encourage more babies as well", he said.

For example, a one-stop hub has been piloted in Kampung Admiralty, which includes childcare, eldercare, hawker centre and supermarket facilities run by NTUC's social enterprises. NTUC hopes to replicate this model elsewhere.

Third, NTUC wants to use data to better meet workers' training needs. It wants to develop an artificial intelligence engine to crunch data to push learning suggestions to workers, such as if there are changes in their industries and they have not gone for training for some time.


Mr Ng called on union leaders to nudge workers to take action and responsibility for their own learning.

Union of Security Employees general secretary Raymond Chin, 37, said options debated for the membership target ranged from 1.2 million to two million. Each union was asked to commit to a target, which was how the total was derived.

His union wants to attract more young people by changing the image of the security sector. "We want to show the youth that security work... uses technology too."

Mr Timothy Lim, 35, an executive committee member in the Air Transport Executive Staff Union, said one possible way to attract more young people to join NTUC is to engage them through apps.

"We could collaborate with companies to have a union presence on their internal platforms," he said.

His union is also working on its own app to let members check their collective agreements or upcoming events such as health roadshows in their companies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'NTUC aims for 1.5m members by 2030'. Print Edition | Subscribe