The labour movement: Strengthening one worker at a time

For our Labour Day special, we spoke to Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Assistant Secretary-General of National Trades Union Congress for insight into workforce issues and how you can equip yourself with the right information about your rights.

Did you know that the labour union in Singapore was founded in the 19th century to fight for workers’ rights? Back then, the working class worked up to 16 hours a day in severe and unsafe working conditions. It was the labour movement that reduced this to the 8-hour workday and safer working environments we know today.

But workforce issues change with the times and modern workers are facing their own challenges. We had a chat with Mr Tay who gave us the lowdown on some of the key issues that workers are facing today.

Mature PMEs are feeling the heat

According to Mr Tay, some of the issues that workers in professional, managerial and executive (PME) roles face include unfair hiring practices, workplace discrimination, career progression, and health and mental wellbeing. And one area that concerns him the most is ageism.

“Mature PMEs aged 40 to 60 are more susceptible to retrenchments and face prejudice when looking for a job — despite being active in their job search and undergoing training.” Mr Tay explained that retrenched PMEs who fall under this age group are facing difficulties looking for a job even with their skills and experience, with some not receiving any replies from hiring firms at all.

Progression is another challenge as a large number of them get the impression that their current or future employers are not open to hiring mature PMEs and would instead opt to find someone else (usually younger) to fill their position or replace them. Many have a fear of becoming obsolete and are unsure about how to future proof their careers.

Three ways to create equal job opportunities to all

Mr Tay believes there are several ways to ensure that PMEs are better protected and supported in terms of employment and employability — not just for mature workers but for everyone.

Having well equipped human resource teams

Companies need to ensure that their HR teams are well equipped and trained in areas such as labour laws and regulations, tripartite guidelines, advisories, and standards to ensure workers are not just fairly treated but also responsibly managed.

Prioritise grooming local talent

Mr Tay mentioned that mature PMEs also cited unfair hiring practices when companies prefer foreign PMEs over local talent for very generic or localised PME job roles. To address this, he encourages companies to prioritise grooming local talent instead of relying on foreign talent. “If there is a shortage of skills from the local workforce, companies should embark on a structured skills transfer programme to ensure that the local talent pool can be built over time.”

Tougher laws in support of worker rights

He also suggests introducing tougher laws or laws that strengthen the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices’ (TAFEP) enforcement powers as this may help in sending a clearer message against unfair hiring.

Make yourself heard and help others like you

When it comes to making sure that the PMEs are represented, Mr Tay also recommends joining the union. “In our recent survey, we found that 51% of PMEs who were not part of the union were unaware that they can join a trade union.”

The Employment Act (EA) and the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) have been amended in recent times to allow for more collective union representation for PMEs. This includes the complete removal of the salary cap ($4,500) to allow more PMEs to be covered under the EA1. 

When you join the Labour Movement (LM), you’ll be equipped with the necessary information and knowledge about your rights. You’ll also have access to tools such as legal primers and clinics to help address unfair practices at the workplace. “It’s important for more PMEs to join the union so that LM can collectively represent and address their concerns when the need arises.

Different workforce solutions to different generational needs

Much like how workplaces have changed since the labour union was formed, it will continue to do so as the workforce profile changes. Mr Tay assures workers that the labour movement will continue to innovate their business model to cater to the changing needs of the workforce.

For example, when it comes to catering to the needs of Gen Z workers who are now just entering the workforce, he understands the need to reach out to this generation and serve them in different ways, including through digital means. “The concerns of this generation will be different, and the solutions to help them will need to be customised accordingly.”

While the union may be planning ahead, they are also working to serve the current workforce generation, especially the vulnerable and underserved workers. “All generations will need to learn to work in more diverse workplaces and be open to new ways of work. More importantly, the labour movement will need to ensure that all workers will continue to benefit from the progress of Singapore and to close any gaps of our society, if any.”

Changes to the Employment Act with effect from 1 April 2019.

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