PN Balji / Guest Writer

DBS Bank’s retrenchment bombshell has its after-effects beyond its timing, suddenness and audacity. It goes to the core of Singapore’s jealously-guarded and famously-touted gold standard of labour relations. That gold standard, pieced together by sheer force, determination and economic carrots, is now under a grim spotlight.

The trade union movement and its leader, Mr Lim Swee Say, need to look itself in the mirror and ask a number of difficult questions:

How is it that the DBS staff union knew of the decision to lay off about 500 workers only three days before the employees and the public knew about it?

Why did the management not discuss with the staff union other cost-cutting measures before wielding the axe?

More fundamentally, what happened to the friendship and partnership that unions like the DBS staff union were supposed to build up with the management?

Instead of doing some introspection, Mr Lim went on the offensive on Friday. He accused the DBS bosses of not consulting the staff union, questioned why they did not think of flexible wages and work arrangements before going for the unkindest cut of all and warned of losing the trust of Singaporeans.

Brave words, spoken like a militant trade leader would.

If any, the one salutary effect it will have is on those companies that are planning similar moves. With the country in recession and with the outlook looking worse before it can get better, Mr Lim is facing his biggest challenge as secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress. His top priority must be to keep layoffs to a minimum.

DBS’ pre-emptive strike, without consulting its trade union partners, has thrown that ambition out of whack. The timing was also horrible. It came just a day after he made page one headlines when he announced a fund that employers can draw from to send workers not fully occupied for training, primarily for the aim of saving jobs. DBS’ retrenchment also cuts close to the bone because Mr Lim is the advisor to the DBS staff union branch.

To make matters worse, DBS Bank is not an ordinary bank. Neither is it an ordinary employer. Its roots are in Singapore, it is seen as government-linked and its actions are taken as a bell-weather of things to come.

If DBS can do it, why can’t we? You might understand if there are bosses out there thinking like this.

And for NTUC and Mr Lim, this episode throws open a rare trait of Singapore’s labour union movement to scrutiny: Its ability to maintain industrial harmony because of its closeness to management and government. The DBS action will make many wonder: What went wrong?

It could be that DBS had to see itself not just as a Singapore-only bank. It operates in 16 countries and is responsible for 15,000 workers. With a vast international network and its advertising tagline saying “Living, Breathing Asia”, it can’t be seen to axe only workers in overseas branches. So equal misery must have become the mantra.

Still the suddenness and haste with which the cuts were administered and Mr Lim’s sharp reactions have given the labour movement and the political leadership much to think about

Navel gazing is not such a bad thing, especially in a crisis.


About the author:

P. N. Balji has 38 years experience as a journalist and is now director of the Asian Journalism Fellowship, a joint project of NTU and Temasek Foundation.


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