More Than Just A Supermarket

Text by Lee Jin
Photo by Sonja Langford

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is Singapore’s sole national trade union. NTUC has 60 affiliated unions, one affiliated taxi association, 11 social enterprises, five related organisations and over 830,000 members making it the main driver for labour movement in Singapore. Their vision is to provide a better and more meaningful life where working people of all collars, all ages, and all nationalities can live, work and play together in Singapore.

Since the establishment of NTUC in 1960s, the purpose and motivation of NTUC have many degrees of changes and meanings. It has played a significant role during Singapore’s road towards independence and also in the nation building process.

Being the sole national confederation of trade unions in the industrial, service and public sectors in Singapore, NTUC has shifted from being a micro-focused union that protects their member’s rights to a macro-focused union. Apart from the duty of improving trade and consolidating unions within Singapore, the union has to further increase their objectives to include that of a labour union. Ultimately, their objectives are to help Singapore stay competitive, ensure workers remain employable for life, enhance the social status and well-being of workers, and build a strong, responsible and caring labour movement.

The union’s three undisputedly desired objectives are a high standard of living, low unemployment rate and low-income inequality.

Focus and Strategy

After NTUC identified their need to focus on the bigger aims like lowering unemployment rate and increasing productivity, an important and right decision made by the management leaders was to form a tripartite relationship between the Government, NTUC and the Singapore National Employee Foundation (SNEF). Some of the key tripartite concerns include issues such as raising the effective retirement age, upgrading of the workforce, promotion of fair employment practices, job re-creation and a flexible wage system. Till today, up to about six different alliances and committees have been set up to tackle different social issues and employment problems related to elder workers, work-life strategy and low wage workers.

This tripartism gives the government leverage within the tripartite committee to recalibrate and signal national direction towards the implementation of macroeconomic policy. Furthermore, it is enhanced by the symbiotic relationship between NTUC and People’s Action Party or ruling party which is sustainable due to the low frequency change in leadership of the union as well as the government. The strong partnership has created harmonious industrial relations for 30 years with more than 2000 disputes resolved per year.

Evolving and Adding to NTUC’s Co-operatives

NTUC has expanded its outreach in an orderly manner since 1970 (see Table 1). It is evident that the organisation has extended to different categories of care and in the most recent two ventures, they have created the NTUC Mercatus and NTUC Enterprises to further their products.

Dates of social enterprises established

01Table 1: Establishment of social enterprises by NTUC since 1961

Measurement of NTUC’s Impact

Overall, NTUC has done well in terms of ensuring Singapore’s low unemployment rate of 2%, reducing the number of strikes to almost zero since the 1980s, maintaining a near zero industrial stoppage throughout the past five years and a low number of trade disputes.

For income inequality however, Singapore’s GINI coefficient stands at 0.412 which is considered to be one of the world’s highest. It can be seen that income inequality is and will be the biggest concern that NTUC has to address.

Amongst their many ventures to better the workers, NTUC Income’s initiative is one of their best givebacks to the workers. When NTUC started, they ventured into insurance business to cover accident expenses for marine industry and industrial construction workers. Even though these industries were considered as high risk and a risky target market for insurance agencies to cover, NTUC felt that it would be in their best interest to cover them while earning money for the union. To step up and provide this safety net for this group of workers is certainly a commendable effort.

NTUC is an organisation that is fully sustainable and profit-making. By analysing the social enterprises that NTUC operates, each is categorised in one of the four primary social enterprise models (Appendix 1) as shown in Figure 2.

02Figure 2: Social enterprises plotted against 4 primary social enterprise models

Each of these initiatives is able to conduct their own business activities with a clear business model that sustain their social means. Under the NTUC’s management, financially stable social enterprises are able to support other new initiatives when they are launched. Resources such as manpower are also easily transferable and mobilised within the NTUC organisation when required. Furthermore, with the strong partnership and support from the government, there will definitely be alternate fundraising means that can be championed with the government’s help. It is thus evident that NTUC’s initiatives are sustainable because of the internal and external support that they currently possess.

Continued push for productivity in a changing social context:

Recruitment firm Randstad’s survey of 5,670 Singapore workers found that 46 per cent do not like their jobs, while three-quarters see their job as nothing more than a way to put food on the table[1]. It would defeat the purpose of increasing overall employability and achieving full employment if the general happiness and meaning is taken away from employees. While trying to increase productivity for the firm, very often than not, the simple rights of welfare or even leave is denied in the pursuit of productivity and growth. The union can try to improve these conditions such that these key performance indicators are not merely a number to prove that the union has done work but also their motivation to be the voice of these workers.

The fundamental definition of high productivity is to produce more goods with the same amount of resource (labour) or to produce the same amount of goods with less resource. In Singapore’s present scenario, there has been an overwhelming increase in the number of foreign workers to meet the market’s demands. When full employment level is reached, it may allow too low a wage level to persist and enable owners of capital to underprice labour. If no changes have been made to address this, the economy runs the risk of local labour being replaced by cheaper foreign workers which may be less productive and competent. This sets the country’s economy into a low-wage and non-productive trap. While it is important to continue in their path of maintaining low unemployment rate, it will also be important for NTUC to look out for local worker’s potentially threatened job.

Societal leadership comes in many forms and every individual has his own directions and beliefs. The case of NTUC allows a better view and understanding of how the largest social enterprise in Singapore works.

Lee Jin studies at the School of Information Systems, Singapore Management University.



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