Op-Ed on Parliament debate regarding Minimum Wage

This term of Parliament was always poised to be different from the last. With more elected Opposition MPs (all coming from the Workers’ Party) and a heightened engagement in politics by the Singaporean electorate, I was hopeful that rationale discussion could come about.

I was particularly hopeful with the Sengkang victory and its impact on National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

NTUC may be known as a supermarket for many post-65ers, but it is positioned as the defender of worker’s rights. Or at least it was in the 60s, until the People’s Action Party (PAP), in its eagerness for economic growth and its own rightward shift post-independence, brought NTUC and its union members to its viewpoint of having tripartitism at the centre of labour relations. Avoiding labour unrest for the stability of jobs was the key, and growth was obtained.

But where has that led us? Sure, we have what many term as a first-world economy, but workers’ rights looks ever more tenuous. The fact that the average Singaporean have been seen to be disgruntled with their employers in survey after survey must not be a coincidence.

All these feels counter to what purported work of the labour union confederation in Singapore has done for Singaporeans, which is to act as the counterweight to businesses and government and champion workers’ rights. NTUC looks closer to a conglomerate with its involvement in supermarkets, food courts, insurance, education, and healthcare. Its involvement in the jackpot business has been subject to concerns from the press. NTUC was even offered to manage a golf course!

What has the NTUC leadership and union leaders done in the meantime for its primary objective? It seems like trumpeting the symbiotic relationship is key. Every Labour Day, the Government makes a big show of its concern on workers.

However, as 32,000 workers would tell you, they are not even able to earn more than $1,300.

Singaporeans should legitimately wonder what is NTUC up to these days and how is it fighting for labour rights? Is it through asking its other partners in the Tripartite system to legitimately answer the needs for those workers who can earn more, or is it content to hide underneath the veneer of economic growth and recovery without giving a thought to the fairness of our economic system in letting workers earn less than a livable wage?

This leads me to my disappointment with NTUC post GE2020. It was turning a corner, having sanctioning industrial action to deter an unfair retrenchment exercise at Eagle Services Asia to protect Singaporean jobs. But its steadfast refusal to support a universal minimum wage is befuddling.

The most recent discussion in parliament about the minimum wage had MPs from both sides of the aisle articulate their arguments. WP MP Jamus Lim referred to the prevailing sentiment that union leaders have about how a minimum wage has an impact on jobs and employment as ‘folksy wisdom’. But instead of engaging the matter, many union leaders chose to attack Jamus Lim online for insulting them.

Perhaps the choice of terms by Jamus could have been better, but the outrage, manufactured or otherwise, is distracting and misplaced. I wish the unionists place as much effort into materially addressing low wage such that we see greater effectiveness. After all, the point should be what we are doing to address low wage and inequality. If prevailing wisdom is correct, then its up to the unionists to show the proof, not attack the messenger of bad news.

But there is still hope for NTUC to advance workers’ rights. NTUC should consider a stronger stance on how to improve their vaunted Progressive Wage Model further. If the Minimum Wage Plus model is truly that amazing, then accelerate the implementation.

Taking 8 years to cover 3 sectors is simply unacceptable for a system of governance that touts efficiency. Or is there no political will on NTUC’s side to take on business interests in more ways?

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