SINGAPORE - 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 other 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 - from helping them get fair compensation, to pushing for safer working conditions in the oil and gas industry - have won him awards over the years.
On Friday (May 22), 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 who received accolades this year 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 turned down many other jobs, such as managerial roles in human resources, in the past.
"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. The driver, his family's sole breadwinner, was not able to drive a forklift anymore.
"I told HR, he's got a daughter, could you give a job to her so at least they will have a constant income? Surprisingly, the company said it was a good idea - they needed someone in one of the sections. They immediately hired his daughter and paid her more than what her father was getting."
Several years ago, Mr Karthikeyan was driving - slowly, he said - in Jurong Island after a meeting with members of a newly unionised company when he crashed with a trailer that was driving towards him.
He ended up with 11 broken ribs and had to undergo an operation for his bladder.
He woke up to find himself warded in the intensive care unit, with a group of union members visiting. Zealously, he started to update them about the outcome of that meeting.
"They started laughing. They said, 'Don't worry. Just worry about taking care of yourself!"
In a video interview on Friday, Mr Karthikeyan 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.
"The biggest challenge is everything is digital now... We must accept it, and make sure our jobs are not redundant," he added.
Turning to the present state of Singapore's economy, which has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Karthikeyan said he is concerned about the retrenchments and the difficulty of finding new jobs. Many companies are not hiring at the moment, he noted, and people may be unwilling to accept new roles without the same standard of pay.
On Friday, one of the people to receive the Model Worker award was Aetos operations manager Zaffar Ali Khan Sulaiman Khan, 64.
He joined the security firm more than 15 years ago, and worked his way up, improving his skills by enrolling in courses at the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute.
"I believe that I have to upgrade myself, and as a leader, I have to be a role model... I return what I have learnt to my officers," added Mr Zaffar, who is also a long-time unionist with the Union of Security Employees.
In a press release on Friday, NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng said the awardees "displayed passion and commitment in caring for fellow workers, going the extra mile to ensure workers are protected and are able to rise up to challenges in today's digital world".
"Among them are veteran union leaders that have dedicated decades of service to the Labour Movement and have made a real difference to the lives of workers around them. I am certain that they will continue to advance workers' interests to the best of their abilities, especially in such challenging times."
Earlier this month, NTUC honoured 29 organisations for their efforts to improve workers' wages, welfare and work prospects. A final group of recipients of the May Day Awards will be announced later this month.