LABOR IN SINGAPORE

LABOR IN SINGAPORE

Labor force: 3.618 million (excludes non-residents), out of 5.5 million people in 2012, country comparison to the world: 97. = Singapore has a standard of living higher than Britain and hourly wages lower than in many of Brazil's major cities. Singapore has a workforce of 1.75 million people out of a population of 3 million in the early 1990s. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Most people are employed in the service industry, commerce, education and administration. Relatively few are in manufacturing and virtually no one is in agriculture. Labor force: by occupation: agriculture: 0.1 percent, industry: 19.6 percent, services: 80.3 percent (excludes non-residents, 2011). = Of 2.3 million Singaporeans employed at the end of 2005, 68.7 percent worked in services, 20.5 percent were employed in manufacturing, 10.1 percent were employed in construction, and 0.7 percent were employed in other sectors. Services produced 66.4 percent of the gross domestic product and occupied 68.7 percent of the labor force in 2005. Major services include financial services, life sciences, and entrepôt trade. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006 **]

Reuters reported: “Singapore has long counted on its people as its biggest resource, the one that helped drive its transformation from a sea port with few natural resources into a key financial center after independence in 1965. Not one to rest on its laurels, though, the Singapore government released a nearly 80-page "white paper" calling for higher productivity in its workforce and projecting population growth by as much as 30 percent by 2030.” [Source: Eveline Danubrata, Reuters, February 17, 2013]

One study reported that the average Singaporean works 46.6 hours a week, the longest in the world. According to an Accenture survey, Singapore had the second lowest job satisfaction among the countries surveyed, with 76 percent saying they were dissatisfied with their jobs. Unlike other advanced countries, there is help for the unemployed. Singapore currently does not impose minimum wages, nor are there state-backed pension plans as in many Western countries.

Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew has noted that developed countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, frequently headhunt and hire Singaporean talent, often offering scholarships and high-paying jobs to lure them away from Singapore. "Countries know, people know Singapore. They no longer think Singapore is somewhere in China. But they don't know Singapore is out there looking for talent," said Lee. "We have to promote our immigration program overseas." [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, June 30, 2012]

Singapore Workforce, 2013

The key highlights of the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Research and Statistics Department's "Singapore Workforce 2013" report are: 1) Higher Labour Force Participation Spurred by More Females and Older Residents: More females and older residents joined the labour force, raising labour force participation rate for the second consecutive year to a new high of 66.7 percent . The labour force participation rate of older residents (aged 55 to 64) also climbed to 67.1 percent in 2013, from 47.3 percent in 2003. This reflects their better educational profile, as well as tripartite efforts to raise their employability. 2) Employment Rate Rose to New High: The employment rate for residents aged 25 to 64 hit a record 79.0 percent in 2013. 3) Stronger Real Income Growth in 2013: After adjusting for inflation, the growth in real median monthly income (including employer CPF contributions) for full-time employed residents increased from 2.5 percent in 2012 to 3.9 percent in 2013. Over the five years from 2008 to 2013, real median income increased by 1.9 percent a year, or the same period, real income growth at the 20th percentile was 1.7 percent , keeping pace with real income growth at the median. [Source: Ministry of Manpower's (MOM), November 29, 2013 ><]

A record proportion of residents aged 25 to 64 were in employment in 2013. The labour force participation rate rose for a second consecutive year to a new high in 2013, as more women and older residents joined the labour force amid a tight labour market. Real income growth strengthened, as nominal income gains remained high and inflation eased. These are the key findings from the "Singapore Workforce, 2013" report by the Ministry of Manpower's Research and Statistics Department, based on data from the Comprehensive Labour Force Survey conducted in mid 2013. ><

Real income growth strengthened in 2013, as nominal median monthly income from work of full-time employed residents (including employer CPF contributions) increased over the year by 6.5 percent to $3,705 in June 2013 and inflation eased1. The growth in real median income accelerated from 2.5 percent in 2012 to 3.9 percent P in 2013. ><

Cumulatively, the median income (including employer CPF contributions) of full-time employed residents rose by 27.9 percent or 5.0 percent a year . from 2008 to 2013. After adjusting for inflation, real median income grew by 9.7 percent P or 1.9 percent a year .P over this period, faster than 7.0 percent or 1.4 percent a year . in the earlier five years (2003 to 2008) and bringing the increase over the decade to 17.4 percent P or 1.6 percent a year ><

Income growth at the 20th percentile broadly kept pace with that at the median in the recent five years. Income (including employer CPF contributions) at the 20th percentile of full-time employed residents rose by 26.6 percent from $1,489 in 2008 to $1,885 in 2013, or 4.8 percent a year . After adjusting for inflation, the increase was 8.6 percent P or 1.7 percent a year This outweighed the real income losses of 0.6 percent or 0.1 percent a year . from 2003 to 2008, resulting in growth of 7.9 percent P or 0.8 percent a year over the decade. ><

Employment and Unemployment in Singapore

Unemployment rate: 2 percent (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 12; 2 percent (2011 est.). Unemployment, youth ages 15-24: total: 6.7 percent (2011), country comparison to the world: 128. According to the Ministry of Manpower, the annual average unemployment rate for 2005 was 3.1 percent. = **

Over the years many people in manufacturing have lost their jobs as multinationals have moved their production facilities to China and other countries where labor is cheaper. But at the same Singapore suffers from labor shortages and relies on foreigners to fill jobs because native Singaporeans are unwilling to work for the relatively low wages offered by many factories. A hot line was set up specifically for the suicidal unemployed.

According to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Research and Statistics Department's "Singapore Workforce 2013" report: Employment Rate Rose to New High – The employment rate for residents aged 25 to 64 hit a record 79.0 percent in 2013 The employment rate for older residents aged 55 to 64 also surpassed the previous high of 64.0 percent in 2012 to reach 65.0 percent this year, achieving the government's target two years ahead of time. [Source: Ministry of Manpower's (MOM), November 29, 2013 ><]

A record 66.7 percent of the resident population aged 15 and above were working or actively seeking work in 2013, up from 63.2 percent a decade ago. The rate for females rose significantly from 50.9 percent in 2003 to 58.1 percent in 2013, though this was still below the 75.8 percent for men. Reflecting the better-educated profile of recent cohorts of older residents and tripartite efforts to raise their employability, the participation rate for residents aged 55 to 64 increased to 67.1 percent in 2013 from 47.3 percent in 2003. ><

The employment rate rose to a new high as 79.0 percent of residents aged 25 to 64 were in employment, up from 78.8 percent in 2012 and 71.8 percent in 2003. The employment rate for older residents aged 55 to 64 also surpassed the previous high of 64.0 percent in 2012 to reach 65.0 percent , achieving the government's target two years ahead of time. As the educational and skills profile of the workforce improved, the share of professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) in the resident workforce rose from 27.4 percent in 2003 to 31.1 percent in 2013. ><

Singapore’s Labor Situation in the 1980s

Singaporeans themselves were universally viewed as the nation's best natural resource. In 1989, however, the work force was a shrinking resource. The high rate of economic growth combined with an increasing number of Singaporeans over the retirement age of fifty-five (nearly 12 percent) and a lower-than-replacement birth rate had resulted in a significant labor shortage. By the end of the century, the labor market was projected to be even tighter. According to the Ministry of Health, the fifteen to twenty-nine age-group would decline 25 percent, from 816,000 in 1985 to 619,000 in the year 2000. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

In 1987 and 1988, slightly more than six Singaporeans out of ten were working or looking for work. Men's rate of participation, 79 percent, remained steady. Women, however, responding to job opportunities in the manufacturing and commercial sectors, were increasingly entering the labor market (48 percent in 1988, up from 47 percent in 1987, 40 percent in 1978, and 24.6 percent in 1970). Job-switching was rampant, particularly in manufacturing, where a 1988 survey showed that three out of four new workers quit within the month they were hired. Higher wage and input costs, as well as job-switching, resulted in a decline in the growth of manufacturing productivity (2.4 percent in 1988 compared with 3.7 percent in 1987 and 13.6 in 1986). The labor market, then, was at the center of challenges facing the Singaporean economy. The nature of the concern about the labor market had been almost totally reversed since independence. The early 1960s were a time of labor unrest, and unemployment was still about 10 percent by 1965. By the late 1960s, however, there was substantial industrial peace, which had continued through the 1970s and 1980s. With unemployment at a very manageable 3.3 percent in 1988, the government's attention was focused on other aspects of the labor market. *

Workers and Wages in Singapore

Singapore's workforce was rated as the world's best by the U.S.-based Business Environment Risk Intelligence (BERI) with a rating of 81 out of a possible 100 points. Singapore finished ahead of Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the U.S., Taiwan, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Norway.

Ranking of education systems and worker productivity in Asia by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy: 1) South Korea; 2) Singapore; 3) Japan; 4) Taiwan; 5) India; 6) China; 7) Malaysia; 8) Hong Kong; 9) the Philippines; 10) Thailand; 11) Vietnam; 12) Indonesia

Average manufacturing wage in Singapore in 1994 (dollars per day): $53.7, compared to $1.6 in China. In 2003, factory workers earned $7.14 an hour, compared to 53 cents am hour in China and $2.68 an hour in Malaysia. Labor shortages in Singapore have boosted wages.

When the unemployment rate is high (which is above three percent in Singapore) recent university graduates have a particularly hard time.

Many workers in Singapore work six days a week. There has been call for reducing the work week to five days.

History of Wage Policies in Singapore

Following the rapid economic growth of the late 1960s and early 1970s, signs of a tight labor market emerged along with a concern that wages might escalate. In response, the government in 1972 established the National Wages Council, a tripartite forum with representation from the employers' federations, trade unions, and the government. As a government advisory body, the council recommended annual wage increases for the entire economy; ensured orderly wage development so as to promote economic and social progress; and assisted in the development of incentive schemes to improve national productivity. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The wage guidelines were not mandatory but were followed by the public sector (by far the largest employer) and widely implemented in the private sector. The influence of these recommendations generally was not applicable to private-sector professional and managerial workers, whose wages were determined more by international forces, but was more important for non-professional white-collar workers. For blue-collar workers, who constituted about 40 percent of the labor force in both the public and private sector, union influence was more crucial than the National Wages Council's recommendations, but market forces were even more important. *

Between 1973 and 1979, actual wage increases followed the council recommended wage increases closely. In 1979 the "wage correction policy," in which there were three years of high-wage recommendations, was designed to force an increase of the productivity of higher value-added operations, to reduce the reliance on cheap unskilled foreign labor, and to raise labor productivity. From 1980 to 1984, however, actual wage increases exceeded the recommendations by an average of 2.4 percentage points per year, as the increasingly heavy demands for labor apparently outstripped its supply. Additionally, collective agreements for unionized workers lasted for two or three years with built-in wage increases. Although starting pay was relatively low, large gaps in wages were institutionalized through longevity of employment and annual raises. *

The effect of wage increases, compounded by a further raise in the mandatory Central Provident Fund component of wages, was to price Singapore out of the market. High wages were a major contributor to Singapore's 1985 recession. Consequently, in 1986 and 1987 the government instituted a wage restraint policy: wages were frozen and the employer's contribution to the fund substantially reduced. The policy's relative success could be attributed to close government-labor ties and to the tripartite forum of the National Wages Council. *

Proposals for wage reform--a "flexi-wage policy"--were announced in mid-November 1986 and became effective with the enactment of the 1988 Employment (Amendment) Act. Under this plan, the basic wage remained relatively stable with adjustments for good or bad years made by increasing or reducing the annual bonus. Negotiating the size of the bonus--frozen to the equivalent of one month's salary since 1972--was left to employers and unions, who would be able to bargain for its retention, abolition, or modification. Profit-sharing, productivity incentive, and employee share plans were encouraged to ensure that high wage payments awarded in fat years were not perpetuated in lean years and that individual as well as company productivity, growth, profitability, competitiveness, and prospects for the industry were taken into account. The government was anxious that wages not increase precipitously. This concern was shared by management, which worried about shrinking profit margins resulting from higher operating costs. Workers, on the other hand, wanted to share in the benefits of the economic boom after giving up wage increases to help cope with the 1985 recession.

Manpower Training in Singapore in the 1980s

The main goals of manpower training were to increase the average skill level of the labor force and, at the same time, provide sufficient numbers of workers with the specialized skills necessary to meet future industrial needs. Beginning in the late 1970s, the government placed increased stress on education in order to achieve the objective of industrial restructuring. As of 1987, however, Singapore's work force was less educated than that of some of the countries with which it competed. Five percent of the work force had university educations compared with 19 percent for the United States and Japan and 6 percent for Taiwan. Some 11 percent had received post-secondary schooling other than in universities, compared with 46 percent for Japan, 23 percent for Taiwan, and 16 percent for the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

In the early 1980s, government studies showed that about half of the work force had primary-level education or less, and many older workers had low levels of English language skills. To remedy this situation, the Basic Education for Skills Training (BEST) program was introduced in 1984 to provide opportunities for workers who had not completed primary education to improve their English and math. By 1989 some 116,300 workers (half the target group) had had some BEST training. Time was also solving the problem as younger people received more education and the older, less-educated workers passed out of the work force; between 1979 and 1984, entrants to the work force with only primary-level education or less declined from 43 percent to 26 percent. The government needed, however, to ensure that this better-educated work force was trained in the necessary skills to complete the transformation of Singapore from a labor-intensive economy to a high-technology city-state--a "technopolis."

A further problem in achieving this transition resulted from "government brain drain." Each year 50 to 60 percent of new university graduates were absorbed by the government, including government-owned companies and the statutory boards. A system of awarding undergraduate scholarships, which often tied the awardees to eight years of government service, assured that the public sector absorbed many of the top-ranking students. Some critics thought that this concentration of the country's valuable human resources in the public sector might be to the long-run detriment of entrepreneurial and private-sector development. *

Singaporean Taxi Driver with a PhD from Stanford in Biochemistry

In August 2009, as the global economic crisis was winding down, Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Singapore’s fraternity of taxi drivers, with its fair share of retrenched executives, has now an exalted new member – a PhD bio-chemist from Stanford University. Prowling the streets of Singapore is 57-year-old unemployed scientist Dr Cai Mingjie who lost his job at Singapore’s premier A-Star biomedical research institute last year. The China-born naturalised citizen with 16 years of research accomplishments said he began driving a taxi last October after failed efforts to land another job. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, August 29, 2009 /~\]

“I have met a number of highly qualified taxi drivers in recent years, including former managers and a retrenched engineer. One cheerful driver – a former stock-broker – surprised me one day in giving me detailed reasons on what stocks to buy or avoid. “At a time like this, the taxi business is probably the only business in Singapore that still actively recruits people,” said Dr Cai. /~\

“(I am) probably the only taxi driver in the world with a PhD from Stanford and a proven track record of scientific accomplishments ...,” blogged Dr Cai. “I have been forced out of my research job at the height of my scientific career” and was unable to find another job “for reasons I can only describe as something uniquely Singapore”. His unhappy exit is generally attributed to a personal cause (he has alleged chaotic management by research heads) rather than any decline in Singapore’s bio-tech project, which appears to be surviving the downturn. /~\

“The case highlights a general weakening of the R and D (research and development) market in smallish Singapore. “The bad economy means not many firms are hiring professional scientists,” one surfer said. “Academia isn’t much of a help – there’s a long history of too many PhDs chasing too few jobs.” /~\

“With an evolving job market as more employers resort to multi-tasking and short-term contracts, more Singaporeans are chasing after split degrees, like accountancy and law or computer and business. Others avoid post-graduate studies or specialised courses of a fixed discipline in favour of general or multi-discipline studies. “Experience is king” is the watchword; there has been a rush for no-pay internships. “The future favours graduates with multiple skills and career flexibility, people who are able to adapt to different types of work,” one business executive said. During the past few years, as globalisation deepened, there has been a growing disconnect between what Singaporeans studied in university and their subsequent careers. /~\

“It follows the trend in the developed world where old businesses disappear – almost overnight – and new ones spring up, which poses problems for graduates with an inflexible job expectation. I know of a young man who graduated from one of America’s top civil engineering universities abandoning the construction hard hat for a teaching gown. Another engineer I met is running his father’s lucrative coffee shop. Lawyers have become musicians or journalists, and so on. /~\

Creativity, an Alien Word in the Singaporean Workforce?

Some foreign companies claim that Singaporean workers are not very good trouble shooters. An Apple executive told the New York Times, “The people I hire are too obedient. Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak, who contributed significantly to the microcomputer revolution, said recently that a company like Apple could not have emerged in a society like Singapore. The reason: Society is structured and the people are not taught to think for themselves. “Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behaviour is not tolerated, (and one is) extremely punished,” Wozniak told BBC in an interview. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, February 25, 2012 /^/]

“Wozniak questioned the existence (if any) of creative people, great artists, great musicians and great writers in Singapore. About Singapore, he said that although many people are educated, have well-paid jobs and nice cars, “creative elements” in society seemed to have disappeared. “Inspiring creativity was important to a company like Apple,” he added. “When Singapore’s civil servants were ranked as Asia’s best several years ago my reaction was one of cynicism, dismissing it as another self-glorying headline.But, on further reflection, I felt the ranking wasn’t entirely irrational. If fact, I thought, if there were one group of people in this world who possessed the best ingredients for good civil servants, it was Singaporeans. These are sticklers to regulations, obedience of superiors, have a good general education and are largely corrupt-free.” /^/

“The government wants to see an innovative workforce, but on the other hand it doesn’t want workers to be too outspoken or become too experimental. The same applies to schools, where teachers demand blind obedience from students. There have been reports of students who used a different method to solve a Mathematics solution found it marked as “wrong” even though they got the answer right. Occasional views of employers are polled about the Singapore worker: In one, they described him as reliable and diligent but lacking in creativity and leadership. Another polled found Singaporeans, though highly educated, neither expressive nor articulate. /^/

“A few enlightened principals, however, are allowing the children a more expressive environment. Wozniak’s views found ready agreement from many Singaporeans. Said Tatiana Ann Xavier: “He is quite right that a company like Apple is unlikely to emerge in a society where polishing apples helps to win promotion. “Creativity lies with the non-conformists; never with the conformists. The government should ponder over his (Wozniak’s) hard truth.” /^/

“Partly because it reflects the Singaporean’s general reluctance to take too personal initiatives, more people want to join the civil service. In some years, more than half the Singaporeans polled said they wanted to make a switch from the private to public sector. It has prompted Professor Eugene Tan to ask: “Have we become a template nation, one so reliant on templates that we suspend our sense of judgment, common sense and initiative?” /^/

Bullying and Horsing Around in the Singaporean Work Place

In May 2013, a Singapore company supervisor was caught slapping a male intern on video that went viral on YouTube. AFP reported: “The 17-second "Singapore office bully" clip, first uploaded on the video-sharing website YouTube, showed the boss repeatedly slapping a younger man described by local media as a 29-year-old intern. Police confirmed to AFP that a complaint had been lodged against the supervisor, who works at a software company, and the manpower ministry said it had also been alerted about the alleged case of workplace abuse.[Source: Agence France-Presse, Annabelle Liang, May 22, 2013 |>|]

“A fellow intern who filmed the video said in a posting at an online forum that he had noticed the supervisor "constantly bullying" his co-worker soon after starting his internship. When he confronted the boss, the supervisor explained that "there is a story behind" the abuse. "He said that my colleague apparently has an inferiority complex and apparently my supervisor is trying to 'nurture' him to get over it," he said. "I felt this was stupid, as how can you nurture someone by hitting them? My co-worker is very timid and seems like the kind of guy that will not stand up for himself." The Straits Times reported that after the video went viral, two former interns in the same company also came out to say they had worked in fear under the supervisor. Local Chinese-language newspaper Shin Min said the intern, a university graduate, was being paid S$500 (US$400) a month and that his parents may seek compensation from the firm. |>|

In 2006, a temporary employee at a Singapore company was fired and another was investigated after they posted videos of themselves "horsing around" in the office on YouTube. Associated Press reported: “The two were initially reprimanded but StarHub fired Terence Tan, 25, the Straits Times newspaper reported. The company is considering disciplinary action against the other employee, who was not named. Chan Hoi San, StarHub's head of human resources, told Channel NewsAsia that Tan was fired "due to misconduct in our office premise." Other staff were told to remove any office videos they might have posted online. [Source: Associated Press, December 9, 2006 *+*]

“The two clips, 2 to 4 minutes long, showed the two young men in company T-shirts playing around in the office after hours with a small anti-stress ball while others watched. They were posted in October but taken off two weeks ago at StarHub's request, the Straits Times reported. Tan, who has worked as a promoter at the company since July, said he was told he had tainted StarHub's image and reputation. "I thought the matter would be over after the scolding," Tan was quoted by Channel NewsAsia as saying. "I just posted the clips online because we thought they were quite funny. ... It's not like I wanted to tell the public that StarHub was a slack place; nothing of that sort." *+*

Working Women in Singapore

According to the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) Research and Statistics Department's "Singapore Workforce 2013" report: More females and older residents joined the labour force, raising labour force participation rate for the second consecutive year to a new high of 66.7 percent , The rate of females' participation in the labour force rose significantly over the decade from 50.9 percent in 2003 to 58.1 percent in 2013, as females became better educated and benefitted from more employment opportunities in the services sector. [Source: Ministry of Manpower's (MOM), November 29, 2013]

In 2005, Takehiko Kajita of Kyodo wrote: “Clean, safe and green, Singapore is one of the most favored destinations for modern Japanese women who want to work and play hard. In Japan, women often find it difficult to get into key corporate positions and face pressure to quit once they get married or give birth. So the city-state's female-friendly working environment is quite attractive to them. [Source: Takehiko Kajita, Kyodo, June 18, 2005]

"In Japan, it's almost impossible for women aged over 30 to find a full-time position. But it's easier to get one here," said Mayo Omura, a 32-year-old accountant at the local unit of Hewlett-Packard Co. She and many other Japanese women interviewed for this article seemed well-informed about present-day Singapore -- who to speak to for business, where to go for leisure, and what to buy at which shops. "I suspect the days of Karayuki-san have become distant history," said Kazuo Sugino, secretary general of the Japanese Association in Singapore. [Ibid]

Work-Related Deaths and Industrial Accidents in Singapore

Singapore is highly industrialized and industrial accidents occur in spite of the fact it has some of the strictest health and safety regulations in Southeast Asia. According to the government's Singapore year book, there were 3388 industrial accidents in 2002, resulting in 64 deaths.

In 2009, Channel News Asia reported: “The number of fatalities at workplaces has gone up. In their latest report, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) and the Workplace Safety and Health Council said 36 people were killed at the workplace in the first half of 2009. This is five more than the total number of deaths during the same period in 2008. Most of the workplace fatalities this year took place in the construction, marine and manufacturing industries. The report highlighted that most of the deaths took place when a worker falls from height. Such cases accounted for three in 10 incidents. Other common causes of deaths included falling objects and collapsed structures. The report also said that the number of people sustaining permanent injuries at the workplace rose to 70 in the first half of 2009, 11 more than the same period in 2008. This time round, most of the injured workers came from the construction industry. Twenty-eight construction workers were injured in all - double last year’s figures. Despite these increases, MOM and the council said that the overall number of work injuries has gone down slightly in the first half of this year - 5268 compared to 5274 in the same period last year. [Source: Channel News Asia, October 15, 2009]

In October 2002, AFP reported: “Three workers at a Singapore company involved in the reclamation and treatment of industrial waste products are thought to have been killed by exposure to toxic vapour, the government said. It was the first such incident in the chemical waste treatment industry and investigations have been launched to determine how this toxic vapour could have been generated, the Ministry of Manpower and the National Environment Agency said in a joint statement. The three were among eight workers for Chem-Solv Technologies Ltd. who were admitted to hospital between September 29 and October 4. [Source: Agence France Presse, October 21, 2002 /*/]

“The trio complained of fever, headache, breathlessness and coughing. Five later developed severe lung inflammation. "Three of the workers have since died and, one is still hospitalised while the remaining four have been discharged," the statement said. "Since then, there has been no other report of workers suffering from similar symptoms," it said.It said investigations so far indicate that the workers "may have been exposed to a toxic vapour on or around 26 September while working at a waste water treatment area." "Based on the nature of the waste being treated prior to the incident, as well as the signs and symptoms of the affected workers, it is possible that the workers had been exposed to the chemical nickel carbonyl." /*/

“Chem-Solv is involved in the reclamation and treatment of industrial waste products and servicing of chemical containers. It collects waste chemicals in drums and containers from various companies and is involved in the incineration, processing and recycling of the waste products. Work at the company's premises has been stopped. /*/

In May 2004, AFP reported: “The Singapore government 30, vowed to tighten safety measures to bring down industrial accidents by a third after a fire on board an oil tanker killed seven people over the weekend. It was the third fatal industrial mishap in six weeks in Singapore."Somebody could probably have done something wrong... we don't know... we are investigating to get to the bottom of the matter," Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted as saying on local radio.[Source: Agence France Presse, May 30, 2004]

“On Saturday seven foreign workers -- five Indian nationals and two Malaysians -- were killed after fire swept through a Portugal-registered oil tanker undergoing repair at Singapore's Keppel shipyard. If proven to be an accident, it would be the third industrial mishap in 40 days in Singapore. Four people were killed on April 20 when a subway construction site collapsed. On April 29 two workers died when steel reinforcement bars collapsed in a six-storey basement car park being built for a high-tech township. A Keppel statement Sunday said the families of the seven deceased had been given S$30,000 (US$17,647) "as a gesture of sympathy." "We grieve with the families over the loss of their loved ones," said Nelson Yeo, the shipyard's executive director. [Ibid]

Industrial Relations and Labor Unions in Singapore

Industrial relations in Singapore reflected the symbiotic relationship between the labor movement and the dominant political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), a relationship rooted in a political history of confrontation that evolved into consensus building. Trade unions were a principal instrument in the anticolonial struggle used by both the democratic socialist PAP and the communists with whom they cooperated uneasily. In 1961 the Singapore Trade Union Congress split into the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the noncommunist National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). The NTUC quickly became the leading trade union organization, largely because of its effectiveness and government support. Moreover, in 1963, when SATU led a general strike against the government, the pro-communist trade organization was banned and many of its leaders were arrested. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Strong personal ties between leaders of the PAP and the NTUC formed the background of the symbiotic relationship, which was institutionalized by formal links. In 1980 NTUC Secretary General Ong Teng Cheong was made a minister-without-portfolio, and a NTUCPAP Liaison Committee comprising top leaders of both organizations was established. As the "second generation" political leaders assumed more government leadership following the 1984 election, Ong was named second deputy prime minister. Following the September 1988 general elections, the NTUC reaffirmed its close relationship with the PAP by expelling officers of NTUC-affiliated unions who had run for Parliament on opposition tickets. The NTUC and the PAP shared the same ideology, according to NTUC officials, so that active support of the opposition was inconsistent with membership in NTUC-related institutions. Workers who did not support the PAP were advised to form their own unions. *

The legal-institutional framework also exerted control over labor conditions. In mid-1968, in an attempt to woo private foreign investment, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew successfully pushed through Parliament a new employment bill and amendments to the 1960 Industrial Relations Act. In order to make factors such as working hours, conditions of service, and fringe benefits predictable, and thus make businesses sufficiently attractive for investors, trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that accounted for most earlier labor disputes. To spread work and help alleviate the effects of unemployment, overtime was limited and the compulsory retirement age was set at fifty-five. Lee's actions, which the militant unions opposed but could do little about, were part of the government's efforts to create in Singapore the conditions and laissez-faire atmosphere that had enabled Hong Kong to prosper. Such measures, in the government's view, were necessary to draw business to the port. Lee stressed survival, saying: "No one owes Singapore a living."

Rapid economic growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s reduced unemployment and resulted in the amendment of these laws. A National Wages Council was formed in 1972 and many of its recommendations adopted. By 1984 a twelve-hour shift was permitted. In order to enlarge the limited labor pool, in 1988 changes were introduced in Central Provident Fund policies reducing payment rates for those over fifty-five, thereby encouraging employers to raise the retirement age to sixty. The discipline imposed on, and expected of, the labor force was accompanied by provisions for workers' welfare. The Industrial Arbitration Court existed to settle disputes through conciliation and arbitration. The court, established in 1960, played a major role in settling labor-management disputes through binding decisions based on formal hearings and through mediating voluntary agreements. Adjudication of disputes between employers and nonunion workers came under the separate jurisdiction of the Labour Court. To help job seekers, the government maintained a free employment service serving both job seekers and employers. A comprehensive code governed the safety and health of workers and provided a system of workers' compensation. Under the Ministry of Labour, the Factory Inspectorate enforced these provisions in factories, where more than 35 percent of Singapore's workers were employed in 1988. *

The trade unions' role and structure also had been modified. In the 1970s, the NTUC began establishing cooperatives in order to promote the welfare of its members. In the 1980s, omnibus unions were split along industry lines and further split into house unions to facilitate better labor-management relations and promote company loyalty. In the 1982 Amendment to the Trade Union Act, the role of trade unions was defined as promoting good industrial relations between workers and employers; improving working conditions; and improving productivity for the mutual benefit of workers, employers, and the country. *

Union membership declined steadily beginning in the late 1970s. In 1988 there were some 83 registered unions, with about 1,000 branch locals, representing one-quarter of the organizable work force. This number was down from ninety unions in 1977. Increasing emphasis on developing white-collar, capital-intensive, and service-oriented industries was partly responsible for the union membership decline. The unions were countering the decline by offering attractive packages to bring in new members.

Singapore Trade Union Provides Cradle-to-Grave Support

In 2005, AFP reported: “From cradle to grave, Singapore's National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) provides for the welfare of members under a unique set-up that has seen it grow to probably one of the world's wealthiest labour groups. Going beyond a union's traditional role of negotiating collective bargaining agreements, NTUC has built a chain of business cooperatives ranging from child and elderly care to insurance, condominiums, supermarkets and lifestyle clubs. Its 32-storey skyscraper, costing S$282 million, is a landmark in the central business district and the NTUC secretary general is a member of the cabinet. [Source: Agence France Presse, May 1, 2005 <<<]

“Set up in 1961, the NTUC eschewed the militant brand of trade unionism that characterised communist-led labour groups at that time and has since avoided virtually any confrontational policies -- there has been only one strike in the nation's 40-year history. It became part of a "tripartite" system in which the unions, the government and employers work in partnership to get workers' benefits and amicably settle differences. Officials of NTUC -- which groups 63 affiliated unions -- describe their relationship with the ruling People's Action Party as "symbiotic", but critics accuse the labour group of surrendering its independence to the state. <<<

“The critics say NTUC's cosy ties with the government have prevented it from standing up for workers, such as in 2003 when many were retrenched or had their wages cut due to the economic downturn triggered by the SARS epidemic. An airline employee, who did not want to be named, noted that only the pilots' union tried to fight the wage cuts. It was no coincidence that the union was the only one in Singapore not affiliated with the NTUC. <<<

“However, the NTUC makes no apologies for its relationship with the government and big business. The nation's industrial peace is an important mix in the city-state's allure for multinational firms. "It's a philosophy: if you are a union movement you have to decide -- either you stand outside and you put pressure on the government to change policies to your favour," NTUC assistant secretary general Halimah Yaacob told AFP in an interview. "Or you can choose to be inside and influence the government from the inside. And for our workers, we have accepted that this is a more effective model. We are a lot more powerful in that sense. "If you are a hothead in Singapore, you will stand out like a sore thumb so you don't want to be standing and behaving in a most unreasonable manner." <<<

“NTUC's success in its money-making business cooperatives have gained both praise and brickbats. Its supermarket chain, Fairprice, is the most popular in the city-state with more than one billion dollars in annual sales. Often criticised for taking away business from small entrepreneurs, the NTUC chain of stores has also helped tame inflation by keeping prices of essential items low. Each time they shop, union members earn points which can be converted into cash later. NTUC Income, which has an "AA" rating for financial strength from international credit rating agency Standard and Poor's, is a leading domestic insurer with more than 1.2 million policy holders and $13 billion in assets. Its medical plan provides lifetime coverage for up to $900,000. Its life insurance premiums amounted to $1.6 billion in 2004. <<<

“NTUC Club caters to the working classes' leisure needs through a network of resorts and clubhouses featuring lounges, disco pubs, fine dining, live band entertainment, karaoke rooms, jackpot machines and a golf course. It also operates a world-class facility offering rides and go-karting, as well as Singapore's biggest water theme park. "This is really to give our members a choice. We also have people who are professionals, (university) graduates who want to play golf for instance. We need to cater for them also, otherwise we become irrelevant," Halimah said. A property cooperative, NTUC Choice Homes, builds residential condominiums, while others focus on health, child and elderly care. <<<

"There's no doubt that NTUC is probably the wealthiest trade union federation in Asia or even the world," a Singapore-based economist told AFP. Halimah also said NTUC makes sure the cooperatives do not lose sight of their social objective by ensuring that prices of goods and services remain affordable to the working class. The cooperatives are also required to publish an annual "social report" containing their charitable and other services.”

Singapore's First Strike in 25 Years Shines Spotlight on Racial Tensions

In November 2012, according to CNN, “171 Chinese bus drivers went on strike alleging that Chinese nationals received lower pay than Singaporean and Malaysian drivers in Singapore, and objecting to the poor living conditions in the workers' dormitories. Twenty-nine of those drivers were immediately deported.” [Source: Liz Neisloss, CNN, February 26, 2013]

The Guardian reported: “An illegal strike by Chinese bus drivers in Singapore has highlighted tensions over immigration in the city-state and exposed the unfavourable treatment of lower-skilled foreign workers. The strike, the first in the tightly regulated Asian financial centre in more than 25 years, was motivated partly by the fact that Chinese drivers are paid less than their Singaporean and Malaysian peers. The Chinese are paid S$1,075 Singapore dollars (£549) a month compared with S$1,400 for a Malaysian driver. [Source: Haroon Siddique and agencies, The Guardian, November 28, 2012 <+>]

“For the first two days of this week, buses ran late and crowded in a city that prides itself on efficiency, leading to complaints from customers. On Monday, 171 drivers failed to turn up and 88 did not report for work on Tuesday. Most returned on Wednesday after officials from the Chinese embassy spoke to them late on Tuesday. Drivers had also face pressure from the acting manpower minister, Tan Chuan Jin, who warned them they had "crossed the line". Riot police were stationed near their hostel. <+>

“The walkout exposed xenophobic attitudes towards Chinese workers, who largely do menial, low-status work deemed unappealing by locals. A reader on the Today newspaper website calling himself Leonard Low wrote: "This is Singapore NOT China. If you cannot follow the law of the land please go back to your own country and strike." Another, James Teo, wrote: "Those who broke our laws of assembly and illegal strikes must be charged in court, fined, jailed or both, deported and banned from ever coming to Singapore." <+>

“There were similar comments on Tan's Facebook page, with Bao Heng commenting: "These [Chinese] drivers don't deserve the same salary and benefits. Many Singaporeans would agree with me that Malaysians drivers are safer drivers." In the case of SMRT Corp, one of Singapore's two bus companies, Chinese nationals account for about 450 of the 2,000 or so drivers on its payroll. The island of 5.2 million people relies on hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, particularly in the construction, hospitality and transport sectors. The influx has strained public services and sparked a backlash, with accusations that foreign workers are stealing jobs, pushing up housing costs and crowding public transport. <+>

“Singapore, which had its last major industrial action in 1986, by shipyard workers, has no minimum wage and prohibits workers in public transport and other essential services from going on strike without giving notice of 14 days. SMRT, which said the strike affected about 5 percent of its bus services, claimed the difference in pay between the Chinese and Malaysian bus drivers was due to the Malaysians being permanent employees.

The strikers also complained that SMRT switched them to a six-day week with slightly higher pay from a five-day week that had allowed them to earn more by doing overtime.” <+>

Chinese Bus Drivers Sentenced after Going on Strike in Singapore

Three months after the Chinese bus driver strike, CNN reported: “In a case that brought to light issues of unfair pay and poor living conditions among foreign workers in Singapore, a court sentenced four Chinese nationals to several weeks in prison for instigating an "illegal" strike. The four, who had pleaded guilty, were led from court in handcuffs to begin their terms in Changi prison immediately. In announcing their sentence, Judge See Kee Oon said it was necessary so as "not to embolden others." Regardless of their grievances, See said, the drivers "could not justify taking the law into their hands." The strike could have had the potential to "severely affect the lives of daily commuters," the judge said. See said the cases were "not the forum" to address the workers' grievances. [Source: Liz Neisloss, CNN, February 26, 2013 ***]

“Worker rights advocates in Singapore say issues of unfair pay and living conditions across many of Singapore's industries, including construction, need to be addressed. In late December the head of Singapore's public bus company, SMRT ,asserted that pay for Chinese bus drivers is "fair" but admitted the dormitory conditions need improvement. Singapore requires 14-day notice for any strike in an industry considered an "essential service." ***

“In an unlikely moment in court, there was a reference to the Academy awards ceremony and actress Anne Hathaway's speech after winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the prostitute Fantine in "Les Miserables." Deputy Prosecutor Francis Ng said, "Just as Anne Hathaway" hoped the misfortunes of Fantine would someday be found only in stories, "similarly we hope there will be no repeat of a strike among bus drivers." ***

“One of the accused, He Jun Ling, was sentenced to seven weeks in prison as the instigator who had made online postings in Mandarin urging fellow drivers to strike and telling them how to do so. A translation of one of his postings issued by Singapore's prosecutor is titled, "The insults and humiliations suffered by Singapore drivers -- where is the dignity of the People's Republic of China bus drivers?" The other three drivers, Liu Xiang Ying, Gao Yue Xiang and Wang Xian Jie, were sentenced to six weeks for their role in a "conspiracy" to instigate a strike. One other accused bus driver -- Bao Fengshan -- was deported after his guilty plea and sentencing in December. The remaining four had planned to fight the charges in a trial, but two weeks before their trial date decided to plead guilty. ***

“One of the attorneys representing the four said his clients were just happy to see the end of a difficult chapter. Defense attorney Mark Goh argued in court for a reduced sentence, saying that they had not been aware of the 14-day law, and noting that SMRT had not addressed the drivers' grievances.” ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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