Trade Unions in Singapore and China Essay

Compare and contrast trade unions in Singapore and China. Do you agree with Barr (2000, p. 481) and Taylor and Qi Li (2007) that the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all? Justify your answer. Introduction With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men (Darrow 2009). However, this is not the case in Singapore and China. Michael D.

Barr (2000, p. 481) as well as Bill Taylor and Qi Li (2007) claimed that the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all but merely a government organ, reflecting the fact that the NTUC and ACFTU is a branch of the government, defending the government’s interests. This essay will begin by individually examining the trade unions in Singapore and China followed by a comparison between trade unions in both countries, and finally provide a justified stand to the argument of whether the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all. Trade Unions in Singapore

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Best known for ‘tripartism’ or close relationships between government, business and trade unions, Singapore’s industrial relations system comprises of the People’s Action Party (PAP), National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) representing the government, employees and employers respectively (refer to Appendix). NTUC was created in 1961 when the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), which had backed the PAP in its successful drive for self-government, split into the pro-PAP NTUC and the leftist Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).

The SATU collapsed in 1963 following the government’s detention of its leaders during Operation Coldstore and its subsequence official deregistration on November 13, 1963, leaving NTUC as the sole trade union centre. Presently, over 98% of union members are in unions affiliated with the NTUC (Ngaim & Tay 2008). After the PAP’s decisive electoral victory in 1968, the government passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act of 1968, which severely limited workers’ rights to strike. From 1969, the NTUC adopted, in its own words, “a cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers” (NTUC Online 2009).

Specifically, NTUC represent workers in collective bargaining as well as in other areas like appeals against wrongful dismissals, negotiations for retrenchment benefits and advice on employment contracts. NTUC can represent both rank-and-file and executive workers. Trade Unions in China Following the consolidation of communism rule in 1945, there has only been one union organization tolerated, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The ACFTU was set up in May 1925 and reactivated only in 1978 when Deng re-established their importance as part of the urban reforms in the early 1980s.

Like NTUC, ACFTU is the leading federation for local trade union federations and national industrial unions in China (Taylor & Li 2007). In fact, it is the largest trade union in the world with 134 million members in 1,713,000 primary trade union organizations (ACFTU 2007). All workers in China are eligible to apply for the union membership and are required to contribute five percent of their monthly salary as membership fees. The membership continues and they will not be required to pay when they retire or are unemployed (ACFTU 2007).

Like Singapore’s industrial relations, China also had their version of a tripartite system that was introduced with the help from International Labor Organisation (ILO) in the early 1990’s (Tan 2007). Since the early 1990s it has been regulated by the Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China. ACFTU’s role is to convey the Government’s policies to the working class and secure the workers’ support and cooperation. In addition, it serves to protect the interests of its members and feedback their problems to the union authorities.

Like Singapore’s NTUC, the Executive committee and Presidium includes many professions, including members of Communist Party of China (ACFTU 2007). Comparing ACFTU and NTUC The NTUC and ACFTU are similar in several ways. Both trade unions comprised of members of the ruling party, they also represent the only federation of trade union in the country and served as an interpreter of the government’s policies. In 1982, the NTUC’s senior official, Secretary General Lim Chee Onn, proclaimed that both the PAP and the NTUC “came from the same mother ? he struggle with the communists and the colonialists”. He also cited his own re-election as Secretary General ? as a vindication of the NTUC-PAP link, which he claimed, “will never be broken and shall never be broken” (Barr 2000). This strong connection between the Government and the trade union is also demonstrated in Taylor & Li (2007) where the ACFTU and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave the union the dual functions of representing the interests of workers and supporting economic reform and thus the primacy of economic goals.

The close relationship between the government and unions is sufficiently strong for it to be taken for granted. Take Singapore’s case for instance, the current Secretary General of the NTUC is also a PAP Member of Parliament, a Minister without Portfolio working in the Prime Minister’s office, and the chairman or deputy chair of several government bodies (Barr 2000). Similarly, the chair of the ACFTU is a member of the standing committee of the CCP, and nominally holds a position more senior in the government than the Head of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (Taylor & Li 2007).

Regardless of the acknowledged virtues of Singapore’s industrial relation system as described by Barr (2000), these ‘trade unions’ are primarily arms of government, and are not, therefore, really trade unions. Rather, they are a superb example of Singapore’s system of corporate management of sectional interests known as “bureaucratic-authoritarian corporatism” that sought to subsume unions into the ruling structure. This can be compared to the relationship between the CCP and the ACFTU, which in practice, is based on ACFTU’s dependence on the party for authority.

For example, when the ACFTU wishes to undertake a new campaign such as organizing migrants or promoting a collective agreement, the party must first endorse the project (Taylor & Li 2007). In any major initiative, for instance in promoting collective contracts, the union at each level will depend on the support and sometimes active involvement of the CCP at the same level, and depend on the CCP’s ability to pressure subordinate levels of the CCP to follow their instruction (Li, 2000).

It also appears that financially, the ACFTU is increasingly dependent on the government for handouts (Taylor & Li 2007). Thus, the ACFTU appears totally subordinate to and dependent on the CCP for its very existence just as the way NTUC does. It is hardly an equal partnership. The trade unions are a de facto arm of government, and they as often act as the government’s representatives to the workers in both countries.

As then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in late 1982, union leaders should “interpret government policies and relate them to the realities of workers’ attitudes and work habits” so that the unions “can play a more effective role to get our workers highly motivated and imbued with the ideals of continually increasing productivity” (Barr 2000). Lim Boon Heng, the previous Secretary General of the NTUC even suggested on one occasion that unions should “explain employers’ thinking and views to members” to “help workers to understand better the rationale behind employers’ actions and policies”.

Similarly, the ACFTU acts as a ‘peacemaker’ in China, maintaining social stability by providing welfare to the unemployed, distributing handouts and imploring workers to be patient when overt conflict seems imminent (Taylor & Li 2007). Evaluating The Differences Between ACFTU and NTUC There is one apparent difference between the NTUC and the ACFTU and that is the NTUC is recognized as a trade union in Singapore while the ACFTU is considered a state organ in China although both unions share several major similarities and functions.

Is the ACFTU a trade union, and if not, should the ACFTU be treated by foreign parties as if it were a trade union anyway? The ACFTU is not recognized as a legitimate trade union because it fails three tests of unionism. First, the ACFTU is placed in a difficult position where protecting worker interests are often antithetical to the national interests. A trade union that prioritized national interests and is unable to protect the rights of its workers is not considered a trade union but rather, an instrument of state policy that aims to curb dissent (Chan & Senser 1997; Sargeson, 1999).

Second, there is no effective electoral system for union office holders. Enterprise level union cadres are generally appointed, not elected, and unions above that level are always appointed from above. Third, being the only legal union in China means workers lack autonomy in action (Taylor & Li 2007). The ACFTU is largely ineffectual in carrying out trade union functions, lacking the willingness or ability to protect workers’ interests.

It is characterized as a bureaucracy with highly centralized authority, and the incumbent problems of inflexibility, accountability and performance. The reason the workers do not turn to the unions is not any ideological distaste, but simply because the unions are generally incompetent or incapable of acting on the workers’ behalf. The ACFTU 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, for incompetence and so on. The one thing that ACFTU cannot do, is represent workers’ interests.

This is a dilemma for the ACFTU because this limitation arises from its dependent relation with the CCP (Taylor & Li 2007). The ACFTU is thus, not a trade union at all but a part of the party-state that represents the will of the leadership rather than the aspirations of the masses. In the Singapore model of industrial relations, the trade unions are said to be in a “special relationship” with the government. On the surface this special relationship looks suspiciously like the government exercises straightforward top-down corporatist control.

Despite being basically correct, such an understanding is overly simplistic because it ignores modest, but nevertheless real elements of inclusion (Barr 2000). As mentioned earlier, Singapore’s Trade Union is a de facto arm of the government; but if the government wants to achieve its economic and industrial aims, it needs the active participation of the trade unions in its programs. A trade union’s primary objective, which in this case can be seen from NTUC, is to improve the member’s interest and welfare in the workplace.

To demonstrate this point, during the 1980s Singapore’s workforce was faced with an overwhelming challenge of outdated workers who new nothing about the booming new technologies and the shift from labor-intensive industries to capital-intensive industries. At that time, 25 percent of the workforce did not complete their primary school education and 11. 3 percent had never been to school or received any education. In order to help the workers overcome this pressing problem, NTUC began a series of programmes to provide workers with basic education and skill trainings.

In recent years, NTUC provided the BEST (Basic Education for Skills Training) programme heavily subsidized for older workers. WISE (Worker Improvement Through Secondary Education) is also another programme available for workers to opt for a higher level of education. NTUC also set up a Skills Development Department to conduct its own programmes to make sure that workers who were not sponsored by their employers for training would not be left behind when retrenched (NTUC Online 2009). This reinforced NTUC’s role as a trade union in the Singapore’s workforce. Conclusion

According to Mr Lee Kuan Yew in July 1996, “Singapore has enjoyed harmonious industrial relations for almost three decades because of the successful tripartite co-operation among employers, unions and government. This has been a major achievement in our industrial relations – a complete turnaround from the bitter confrontational practices of trade unions in the 1950 and 1960s” (Speech ? Text Archival & Retrieval System). Hence, that although NTUC does not fit into the mould of a standard trade union, it met all the criteria for it to be considered as a trade union whereas the ACFTU failed to prove itself.

In conclusion, I do agree with Barr (2000, p. 481) and Taylor and Qi Li (2007) that the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all to only a certain extent. (Word count: 2033) References ACFTU, A Brief Introduction of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), 2007, accessed on 09/02/2010 at Barr, M. 2000, ‘Trade unions in an elitist society: The Singapore story’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 46, no. 4, pp. 480-496. Chan, A. & Senser, R. A. 1997, ‘China’s Troubled Workers’, Foreign Affairs 76(2): pp. 04-117. Clarence Darrow Quote, 2009, accessed on 15/02/2010 at Lee, L. T. 1986, ‘Trade unions in China, 1949 to the present: The organization and leadership’, Singapore University Press Pte Ltd, Singapore. Li, Q. 2000, ‘Transition of Labor Relations in Chinese State-owned Enterprises: Case Studies of a Process Dominated by Government’, PhD dissertation, City University of Hong Kong. Ngaim, T. D. & Tay, S. (ed) 2008, ‘A Mandarin and the making of public policy: reflections by Ngiam Tong Dow’, NUS Press, Singapore.

NTUC Online, 2009, accessed on 11/02/2010 at Rosa, L. 1990, The Singapore state and trade union incorporation, Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 20, no. 4. Sargeson, S. 1999, Reworking China’s Proletariat, London: Macmillan, pp. 40-41 Speech, Text Archival & Retrieval System, accessed on 17/02/2010 at Tan, C. H. 2007, Employment Relations in Singapore, 5th ed, Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall. Taylor, B. & Qi Li, 2007, ‘Is the ACFTU a union and does it matter? ’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 701-715.


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