Compare and Contrast Trade Unions in Singapore and China Essay

In the following essay I will be investigating if NTUC and ACFTU are really trade unions and present the evidence that I have collected which has helped to shape my opinions and support my arguments. Growing up in Singapore, I have heard about NTUC since I was young but never have I scrutinised the trade union here so closely. I used to think that NTUC was the company that gave Singaporeans NTUC Fairprice, the supermarket and NTUC Income for subsidised insurance. To be quite honest, I was largely ignorant about what the NTUC did, but I knew that the NTUC was fundamentally part of the government.

Taking a glimpse into history and the events that shaped NTUC, I have a newfound respect and pride for my nation’s trade union for the work that they have accomplished. Based on my findings, that I will further substantiate below, I will explain why I do not think that the NTUC and ACFTU are trade unions. Though there are many similarities between these two organisations, NTUC has seen more success in the policies and implementation of schemes than the ACFTU. There’s an old Chinese proverb that aptly describes the relationship between these two unions and their government “Man is the head of the family, woman the neck that turns the head”.

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The ACFTU and NTUC is the head that the people see, but in effect, it is the government that is controlling the unions. However, that said we also have to look at it at from a bigger perspective and analyse if this close working relationship is detrimental to the welfare of the country’s workers. I started my investigations by firstly understanding what makes a trade union and what constitutes “trade unionism”. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) recognises trade unions that are “independent of outside influence, and have a democratic structure” (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 2004).

NTUC is recognised and registered as an affiliated organisation of the ICFTU, it is also the only trade union that is present in Singapore. The ACFTU on the other hand, cannot be found on the list of affiliated organisations. There are similarities between the NTUC and ACFTU but why was the ACFTU excluded from the list? The characterisation of trade unionism on the other hand is defined as the act of a collective group of workers “who want to improve the terms and conditions at their workplace and to enhance their status in society” (Tan, 2007, p. 1). In its most basic form, trade unionism includes collective bargaining for employees, protecting workers’ rights and jobs, secure better work conditions and fight discrimination and promote equality within the workplace. Relationship with the government I first examined both the unions’ relationship with the government and realised that the ACFTU and NTUC have close ties with China Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Action Party (PAP) respectively.

However, with the NTUC and PAP, the relationship has been symbiotic with both the government and trade union working hand in hand to “achieve its economic and industrial aims” (Barr, 2000, p. 486) and at the same time preserve workers’ standard of living. The NTUC operates as “a de facto arm of the government, and it often acts as the government’s representative to the workers”. Although it may seem like NTUC is taking a submissive role, NTUC and the PAP have a trusting and committed relationship to benefit the nation as a whole.

The ACFTU and CCP on the other hand although similar to Singapore that they are bound tightly together, are seen as “part of the party-state that represents the will of the leadership rather than the aspirations of the masses” (H. Wang, 1998, Wu, 1995, cited in Taylor and Li, 2007, p. 703). When the main role of a trade union is to serve the country and employer welfare, this at times is paradoxical to the employees’ interest. Parallel and Interchangeable career paths of members of the government and union

The career path of both the NTUC and PAP members are intertwined and incestuous. NTUC officials are often already members of Parliament and Cabinet as highlighted by Barr (2000). In Singapore, the close ties between PAP and NTUC is not a relationship that is kept behind close doors. In fact, NTUC’s Secretary General Lim Chee Onn in 1982 openly stated that the PAP and NTUC come from the same womb. This elitist society as evidenced goes against the definition of a trade union, as the members of a trade union should be the common man who isn’t part of any elitist group.

The PAP government believes that the NTUC should have elite leadership to guide the non-elite leaders and the ordinary members of the union. The PAP also believed that Singapore would benefit from appointing the elitist society as, ‘the non-elite cannot be relied upon to represent themselves competently’ (Barr, 2000, p. 482). This belief reeks of anti-democracy however, it has somehow been accepted with the general public in Singapore. In China, the government usually appoints the senior officials of the ACFTU.

Even if members elect a representative, the union may not necessarily agree on the elected representative. The top official in ACFTU is also a member of the leading body of the CCP and usually holds a position more senior in the government than in the union. As like the NTUC and PAP, the ACFTU and CCP career paths for members are permeable. However, the status and prospects in the CCP are more desirable than in ACFTU and thus union members are more prone to associate with CCP’s interests than the unions. Both the CCP and PAP are seen to be “hand picking” representatives to be appointed to lead the trade unions.

This conflicting role of serving the government and the workers is a challenging task if the unions and the governments have different ideals. The main issue is that if the ACFTU does not agree on ideals set by the CCP, it is difficult, if not impossible to stand against the CCP. Fortunately in Singapore, the PAP government and NTUC have not had many distinctive differences. NTUC and Collective Bargaining Webb and Webb defined that the primary role of a trade union is to fight for the rights and interests for workers (Webb and Webb, 1894, cited in Burchielli, 2006).

The role of the NTUC is a lot more complex than Webb and Webb’s definition as it breaks away from the typical mould of other trade unions around the world. Fundamentally, trade unions are meant to represent workers during collective bargaining with employers and the government. However, because of the implementation of the Industrial Relations Ordinance 1960 and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 1968, which restricts the freedom and processes of filing a collective bargain, ‘it is not possible to claim that collective bargaining is the central activity for most of Singapore’s trade unions’ (Leggett, 2008,p. 11). ICFTU stated in their Singapore: 2006 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights report that union members have no influence on the decision made between their union representative and the employer. In Singapore, agreements and bargaining have to be assessed and approved before being certified by the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC). Leggett also explained, “collective agreements must be in the public interest” to be certified (Leggett, 2008, p. 110).

Although the IAC can refuse certification on the grounds of public interest, this not yet or rarely been witnessed. The certification by the IAC also protects members, as it would then be a legally binding contract for the members, employers and NTUC. Furthermore, due to “amendments to the Trade Disputes Ordinance in 1960 (Ordinance 19) extending illegality to sympathy strikes, strikes aimed at pressuring the government and those inconveniencing the public” (Leggett, 2008, p. 107), it is not possible to have a legal strike in Singapore without the consent of the government.

Although these processes seem to favour that of the government, this was implemented to ensure regulation of industrial relations that nurtures an environment that promotes industrialisation and is “conducive to the development of a productive workforce” (Rodan, 1997, cited in Leggett, 2008, p. 104). Keeping in mind that Singapore has to rely solely on human resources and productivity for economic growth, it is imperative that NTUC and government exercise ‘preventive mediation’ during a trade dispute and assist in providing a peaceful resolution (National Trades Union Congress, 1976, cited in Leggett, 2008, p. 08) to remain attractive for foreign investments. ACFTU and Collective Bargaining Warner (2008) has observed that the ACFTU has not actually pursued any collective bargaining in the past and if is further supported by Leung that when workers do organise strikes, the ACFTU is usually left out of the process (Leung, 2002, cited in Warner 2008). The ACFTU seems to be ineffective in being the voice of the workers in China and is ‘blamed for not protecting worker rights, for siding with management, for being slow to respond or absent from the scene when conflicts do occur’ (Taylor and Qi Li, 2007).

Role of NTUC Due to the close tripartite relationship between NTUC, the government and employers, it creates a special recipe that produces an environment where the role NTUC is not so much of a typical trade union but so much more. Leggett (2008) compares NTUC and the PAP to an instrument in which NTUC is the ‘mouthpiece for all levels of government as well as a conduit for carrying government policy to the workforce’ (Leggett, 2008, p. 117).

The PAP government may make the rules, but it also “takes care” of the Singaporean worker by providing subsidies on housing, education, health and other necessities so Singaporeans can have a decent quality of life (Barr, 2000). Seeing that strikes and collective bargaining is controlled, NTUC’s affiliate – Singapore National Employer’s Federation (SNEF) stated that the strategies for the new millennium is to increase productivity so that companies could grow, improve competiveness of our prices, create more value added jobs and cultivate corporate citizenship by supporting workers in their education for skill upgrading (Tan, 2004).

The vision of NTUC 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” and their mission as stated on their website is to “help working people earn a better living and live a better life” (NTUC, 2010). Due to NTUC’s close tripartite relationship with the government and employers, the role of the trade union in Singapore differs from many other parts of the world.

The main goal for NTUC besides “ensuring good working conditions and a fair return for labour”, they go the extra step to also assist union members to upgrade their skills by offering subsidised rates. The NTUC also offers subsidies for organisations that send their employees for training. This holistic approach to upgrading worker’s skill set and employability not only is beneficial for the worker, organisation and also the nation. Role of ACTFU The ACFTU acts as the CCP’s assistant in ensuring the laws of the government are adhered to.

Warner (2008) has pointed out that the ACFTU took the role of the ‘”police” in the workplace for the authorities in terms of monitoring women workers’ fertility cycles at factory level’ (Warner, 2008, p. 151). When the authority meant to protect workers’ welfare takes the side of opposition, the trade union becomes meaningless. Even in instances where the ACFTU submitted agreements to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MoLSS) for certification, more than half of the agreements are declined (Li, 2000).

This illustrates the lack of power ACTFU has in dealing with the CCP government. Most of the functions of a trade union have been assigned to other bodies in China and hence, the ACFTU is seen as ‘merely attending to residual duties such as organising sports and leisure activities at plant level for workers’ (Warner, 2008, p. 150). Political Characteristics of China and Singapore Singapore has been a democratic nation since her separation from Malaysia in 965, with the PAP as the main ruling party. The Singapore Democratic Party mentions that one of their main goals is ‘to build an economically stable and progressive nation based on the free market system where private entrepreneurship is encouraged and direct Government participation in business is minimized’ (Singapore Democrats, What we stand for, viewed 14th February 2010, <http://yoursdp. org/index. php/the-party/what-we-stand-for>).

Deyo (1981) has branded Singapore’s system of social control as ‘bureaucratic authoritarian corporatism’ (Leggett, 2008). The China Communist Party (CCP) has led China since 1920, and after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976; Deng Xiaoping became the new leader in 1978. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s revolution, China was a strict communist country with their ‘‘iron rice bowl’ cradle-to-grave employment system and relatively egalitarian wage system’ (Warner, 2008, 141). Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms veered China down the road to socialism.

The difference between socialism and communism is that in socialism, the distribution of a nations wealth is dependent on the level of production by an individual while communism is the distribution of a nations’ wealth depending on the needs of an individual. Because of the economic characteristics of China, the ACFTU is effectively a ‘top-down’ organisation that is under the control of the CCP (Warner, 2008). Also, the ACFTU is the only trade union that is allowed by the CCP, which doesn’t give union members much choice if the ACFTU does not or cannot voice their concerns.

The change from communism to socialism was the ‘demise of the ‘iron rice bowl’ system, of ‘jobs for life’ and the in-house welfare state for state sector workers’ (Warner, 2008, p 143). Although this change brought about freedom to the people, China saw great inequality, which opposes the ideals of socialism. Conclusion Mauzy and Milne, 2002, mentioned that the government’s successful and fair management might have supported the inclination of Singaporeans to ‘rank social stability as more important than personal liberty’ (Mauzy and Milne, 2002, cited in Leggett, p. 14). I agree with Mauzy and Milne that although it may seem that Singaporean union members are submissive or have accepted that we have given up our rights to our trade union and government, however it is largely because of the trust Singaporeans have bestowed on NTUC to ensure that our interests are taken care of. Although monopoly…. NTUC has proven that although the advancement of the country is a top priority….. Perhaps china’s problem with uniting…logistic issues vs Singapore small island, easier to communicate?


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