The snake that eats its own tail.
The union employer that abuses its own staff.
It is hard to imagine a more stunning demonstration of how un-fit for purpose Singapore’s “tripartite” labour model really is. In fact, if you made this up as a hypothetical example of what could go wrong with employer-employee-union relations in Singapore, people would laugh in your face because it is too ridiculous to believe. Unfortunately however it is true.
NTUC, the umbrella union of all trade unions in Singapore, the one and only single entity above all others that should respect and fight for the rights of workers, was not making the correct tax and CPF declarations for a group of their own employees for the last twenty years. The affected financial consultants were first informed of irregularities in January 2012 when NTUC admitted to having incorrectly declared their salaries to IRAS and made errors in payment of CPF contributions over the previous two decades – creating a liability for their employees of 5 million dollars. Apparently NTUC saw the “only solution” to this problem as being to change the status of the employees to that of independent contractors, effectively retrenching 660 staff. Quite how changing the current and ongoing status of existing employees solves a problem of historical salary irregularities dating back over decades is not even remotely clear.
Mind blowing. An employer that would like to sack their own employees to solve an accounting problem which was purely a result of their own incompetence. In most first world countries this would immediately be illegal and scandalous. In some countries with a less than optimal labour market it is something that errant employers may try to do in the face of union resistance. In Singapore, this is how our union itself treats their own employees. It beggars belief. The conflicts of interest in this case are off the scale, beyond the stratosphere, blasting through outer space and going into orbit around a black hole 6.9 million light years away.
Without wanting to re-hash the facts of the case which are well documented elsewhere, it is enough to point out that the affected employees had to seek assistance from a union, the Singapore Insurance Employees Union (SIEU), that ultimately answers to their employer, NTUC. This is the tripartite model in action. Your union is affiliated with your employer, and sides with your employer when you most need their representation. Under extreme pressure to sign up to a huge and unilateral alteration to their status as employees – no less than the union president of the SIEU himself stated that the employees he purported to represent would lose their licenses and become jobless if they did not accept NTUC’s unilateral decision to retrench them and convert them into independent contractors. Promises that benefits would be unaffected were not kept – many were lost – including rights to paid leave, sick leave and maternity benefits. In some cases employees found management on their doorsteps, contracts in hand, seeking their signatures. It is noteworthy that some of the consultants attempted to sign the agreements with the disclaimer “Without prejudice to SIEU representation on outstanding issues”, but this was not accepted and staff were instructed to sign only with their name. It could hardly be more obvious that the intention of the union was to wriggle out of representing their own members in this dispute.
This sorry tale of the failure of labour relations brings to mind the recent SMRT bus drivers strike. At that time I wrote
“Ignored by the senior management of their government controlled employer, receiving no meaningful representation from government controlled unions, and clearly receiving no helpful support from the government’s Ministry of Manpower, it is not hard to understand why these Chinese workers ended up having no faith in Singapore’s “Tripartite Model” and decided to take matters into their own hands.”
The situation here is only slightly different. The employer is the union and the union, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of labour relations in Singapore knows, enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the government. It is not clear what role, if any, MOM have to play this time. However it is still abundantly clear that Singapore’s “Tripartite Model” is utterly un-fit for purpose. The scope for conflicts of interest to arise when so many seats of power are arranged and filled by the government is practically limitless.
The only solution is structural reform. Merely replacing the people sitting in the seats is not enough if the structure of governance and oversight in Singapore is not fundamentally altered. We need more independent bodies, free from government oversight and interference, to better represent and protect the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans.