Tripartite trust can help S'pore weather virus storm: Ng Chee Meng

With workers, employers and Govt working together, the nation can emerge stronger: Labour chief

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The trust between workers, employers and the Government that Singapore has built has created win-win situations, with a much bigger pie for both capital and wage gains to grow over the years, labour chief Ng Chee Meng said yesterday.

Such tripartism has inspired faith among workers and employers, and is a strength that can help Singapore weather the storm brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, he added in an interview with The Straits Times.

Mr Ng, who is the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general, noted that many workers are worried, and there is a gnawing sense of anxiety about their livelihoods and jobs. But he added that while job losses will be inevitable amid the challenging conditions, Singapore has strengths and can emerge stronger.

"Don't let it be all gloom and doom because we must have that tenacity, with a vision forward to be able to overcome the challenge of Covid-19," Mr Ng said in the interview, which was aired on ST's The Big Story.

He referred to the trust in the tripartite movement as "an open secret ingredient" which is very hard to forge, that makes for a relationship which allows for possibilities not always visible to the public.

"With this trust that we have in the labour movement, in tripartism... we could persuade workers - look at the big picture, and it is not just during Covid-19, but other circumstances as well.

"If the company were to fail, what happens to all the rice bowls? Equally shattered," Mr Ng said, adding that in these circumstances where the labour movement has experience working with employers, it is able to evaluate how it can help share the burden in supporting workers during crises.

For example, NTUC went in actively to help workers in Singapore Airlines' budget arm Scoot, finding receiving companies or government agencies which had jobs available for airline employees.

These workers were matched to secondary jobs and seconded to other places of employment amid the current crisis, while keeping their jobs in the airline, noted Mr Ng, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"This is a strength that we should treasure, and I hope that a new generation of Singaporeans will understand why tripartism is so unique, and such a pillar in our framing of our overall economy," he said.

Elaborating on some of the other initiatives which NTUC has been involved in to help workers, such as job matching, support for self-employed persons and facilitating forward payment for instructors and coaches who work mostly with the Ministry of Education, Mr Ng said these initiatives work across the different unions, partnering with companies both large and small.

Government assistance, through the Jobs Support Scheme and the financial backing for employers and assistance schemes for Singaporeans, does help to shore up worker morale during this period, but he is not taking anything for granted.

The livelihoods of workers and their jobs are his greatest concern as labour chief, Mr Ng said, highlighting that the challenges of Covid-19 will be "very severe".

"It is not just this period, but if you look at the compounding effects of the issues geostrategically between the great powers, you will see that there are... layering issues that I am concerned about," he cautioned.

Given Singapore's open economy and position as a trading nation, it would be emerging into a "much more troubled world" when it recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, and needs to be prepared for that.

This calls for a greater push for Industry 4.0 and Workers 4.0, Mr Ng said, noting that there are now more companies ready to move forward with transformation, with some having pivoted and set themselves up for a better trajectory for recovery.

Industry 4.0 refers to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which sees traditional processes like manufacturing transformed by technology, automation and data, requiring jobs to be transformed or lost.

For companies which are not yet on this journey, Mr Ng said government and NTUC grants, such as the Enterprise Development Grant and SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit, can help defray up to 90 per cent of transformation costs.

A company with a $100,000 technology upgrading plan, for example, could get up to $90,000 in funding, he noted.

There is no reason for firms not to transform if they have the financial means and when resources are made affordable to them, Mr Ng said, pointing out that if firms have no vision in a lull economy, "a burning platform will get you".

Assistance is available for all companies, big or small, he added: "If you are willing to go with us, we are willing to partner you to the best of our abilities."

He said: "Ultimately, NTUC has a vested interest in this. I want Industry 4.0 to succeed for my country. I want Industry 4.0 to succeed for my workers.

"And if the employers can nudge workers together in NTUC, I will be for it, because it will lead to better wages, better welfare and, more importantly in the medium term, long term, better work prospects. That must be the strategy for us in tripartism to move everybody together."

Mr Ng was also asked about the traditional special bond between the NTUC and the People's Action Party, as a general election looms.

He said that the unions have always been a "symbiotic partner" with the ruling party, and will continue to be a good partner to ensure that when Singapore is successful, the success is "always shared with our people, our citizens, our workers".

"That must be the raison d'etre of why we want Singapore to be successful," he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2020, with the headline Tripartite trust can help S'pore weather virus storm: Ng Chee Meng. Subscribe