SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic, which has vanquished jobs and left millions unemployed around the world, underscores just how vital a strong labour movement is, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as he thanked the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for tirelessly protecting workers in Singapore.
"This last year, NTUC's dedication to its mission has truly come to the fore," he added on Saturday (May 1) at the May Day Rally marking the NTUC's 60th year.
"As Singapore forges ahead in an uncertain world, we must keep our labour movement strong, and strengthen its bonds with a pro-labour government."
The latest jobs figures released this week show unemployment here easing, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels, continuing on a trend from the start of the year.
The unemployment rate, which peaked at 3.5 per cent overall in September last year, fell to 3.2 per cent in January and 2.9 per cent in March.
Addressing unionists at Downtown East in a hybrid rally that saw most people participating online, PM Lee noted that the labour movement had "protected workers in every way".
Amid the downturn, NTUC had ensured retrenchments were done fairly when jobs cuts became inevitable, helped workers tap the government schemes available, and also encouraged workers to accept immediate sacrifices to keep businesses afloat, so as to save jobs in the long run, he said.
Acknowledging the difficulties the unionists faced, PM Lee added: "But they felt a sense of mission, cushioning the blow for the affected workers, helping them get back on their feet, helping them find and settle into new jobs."
He noted that the efforts had reaped rewards, with local employment not suffering greatly and even rising a little, even though the downturn has been worse than any previous one Singapore has had to weather.
In fact, said PM Lee, the Government, unions and employers - the tripartite partners collectively - have weathered many recessions and crises together.
He recounted how in 1985, when Singapore faced its first major recession, ministers and union leaders had to help workers see that business costs had gone out of line, and persuade them to accept drastic measures including cutting Central Provident Fund contributions by 15 per cent.
PM Lee, who was then Minister for Trade and Industry, said ultimately, the workers supported the tough measures, because that generation of union leaders, led by then NTUC secretary-general Ong Teng Cheong, had earned their trust.
"That unforgettable experience reinforced the bonds between the Government and the unions, as well as with employers too. It was a powerful demonstration of tripartism at work," recalled PM Lee.
Subsequent generations of Government, union and business leaders have sustained the bonds, he added, with the Government restoring CPF rates when economic conditions allowed, employers turning to retrenchments during downturns only as a last resort, and union leaders cooperating to find solutions.
NTUC's story intertwined with the Singapore story
PM Lee traced this tripartite model back to NTUC's Modernisation Seminar in 1969, when the labour movement, faced with a decline in membership, looked to redefine its role in an industrialising Singapore.
He noted that the NTUC's founding is closely intertwined with the Singapore story, with many of Singapore's founding leaders having been inducted into their political lives through the trade unions.
Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had launched his political career by representing the postal workers' union in the postman's strike of 1952, and when he and his colleagues founded the People's Action Party in 1954, unionists were among the first members, Mr Lee pointed out.
After Singapore achieved self-government, the fight between the non-communists and the pro-communists heated up and the unions became a battleground.
The pro-communist group within the PAP eventually broke away in 1961 to form the Barisan Sosialis, splitting the trade union movement at the same time, with 82 unions supporting the new party. The 12 unions that stood with the PAP got together and formed NTUC that year.
In 1967, widespread industrial strife and Britain's decision to withdraw its forces from Singapore had deterred foreign investments.
The Government introduced new laws which restored employers' right to hire and fire their employees, and curtailed the unions' power. It was an uphill task for the Government and NTUC to persuade workers that their basic rights would be protected, and the perception grew that the unions were no longer effective.
Against this backdrop, NTUC worked to modernise. Mr Devan Nair, who chaired the Modernisation Seminar in 1969, had argued that workers were ultimately interested in salaries and bonuses, and not in strikes or a communist state, said PM Lee.
Under its refreshed mission, NTUC launched social enterprises, setting up NTUC Income and FairPrice as well as childcare centres. Employers, too, played their part, treating the unions as partners and not adversaries, said PM Lee, noting that the Singapore National Employers Federation is also marking its 40th anniversary this year.
These efforts ushered in a new era of industrial relations, based on collaboration rather than confrontation, PM Lee added.
NTUC continues to be key partner for Government
Since then, a strong labour movement has been an essential partner in Singapore's progress, he said.
He added that at the leadership level, ministers and NTUC leaders work closely together, and said that he had sought NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng's views on workers' issues before settling the recent Cabinet changes.
PM Lee had requested for Senior Minister of State for Health Koh Poh Koon, who was NTUC deputy secretary-general, to return to the Government full time so he could be appointed to the Ministry of Manpower, where he wanted an office holder familiar with NTUC.
In return, Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat will join the labour movement, and retain his transport portfolio.
PM Lee also paid tribute to old-time union stalwarts - Mr Mahmud Awang of the Singapore Traction Company Employees' Union who later became chairman of the NTUC's Pro-Tem Committee and a PAP Legislative Assemblyman, and Mr Nachiappan Sinniah of the PUB Staff Union and a founding member of the Union of Power and Gas Employees - both of whom died this year.
Noting that union memberships in Singapore have grown steadily, unlike in other developed countries, PM Lee pledged that the PAP will always stand by NTUC and workers.
"You are at the heart of what we do, you are the reason why the PAP was founded, you are the reason why the PAP exists," he said.
He called on NTUC to remain steadfast in its mission and to strengthen its close partnership with the Government to improve the lives of Singapore workers.
Through the Asian Financial Crisis, the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic and the Global Financial Crisis, this partnership has helped sustain Singapore, said PM Lee.
"Each time, the trust between the workers, businesses and Government held, and proved crucial," he added.
"Now with Covid-19, we are going through the crisis not of a decade, but of a generation. But when we look back at our record of overcoming past crises, Covid-19 does not look quite so daunting."