May Day Rally

Unionists welcome assurance on workers' interests

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat greeting Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at Downtown East yesterday while Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam looked on. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat greeting Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at Downtown East yesterday while Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam looked on. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

For union leaders, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's first May Day Rally speech sent a clear signal that ties forged decades ago between the ruling party and the labour movement are set to stay strong into the next generation.

The significance of this, they note, is that the interests of workers will have to remain a key focus of the fourth-generation leaders as the People's Action Party (PAP) undergoes a leadership transition.

"If you look at other countries, when leadership changes, a lot of times directions, affiliations and relationships change," said Ms K. Thanaletchimi, president of the Healthcare Services Employees' Union. "In this case, the affirmation by our DPM is a strong signal that labour will be at the centre of all that the Government does."

Mr Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab, general secretary of the Union of Power and Gas Employees, said DPM Heng's assurance that the new generation of government leaders stands with the labour movement "gives us confidence that... we will stand together to overcome whatever challenges come our way".

In his speech at Downtown East - managed by the leisure and entertainment arm of NTUC - Mr Heng outlined how the "symbiotic relationship" between the PAP and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) can be traced back 50 years to the 1969 Modernisation Seminar and pledged that this relationship would continue. He said: "We strive for growth in order to improve the lives of every Singaporean. The labour movement can be assured that the PAP will never abandon the working man and woman."

Speaking before Mr Heng, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng, in his first opening speech as labour chief, recapped the labour movement's efforts to lift wages and improve the welfare of workers.

He said unionised workers enjoyed better wage growth on average. And when they had to, unions continued to represent workers on the ground to negotiate salary claims or to secure better retrenchment benefits when needed. NTUC had 4,800 industrial relations cases last year, slightly more than in 2017.

For older workers, NTUC is working to extend the retirement and re-employment age. It is also reaching out to freelancers and looking to represent more professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in areas like banking, and its social enterprises are helping workers stretch their dollar.

He added that the labour movement is also looking at lifting the work prospects of members as this will help improve wages and welfare in a sustainable way over time.

As for tackling current challenges, leaders like Union of Security Employees general secretary Raymond Chin said they have been working closely with the 4G leaders. Mr Chin said his union's dialogues are often attended by Manpower and Second Home Affairs Minister Josephine Teo. "That's quite positive and it gives us the feeling that 'Yes, we are doing this together'."

Linette Lai, Joanna Seow and Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2019, with the headline 'Unionists welcome assurance on workers' interests'. Print Edition | Subscribe