When the nature of work itself is changing, the labour movement needs to change with it.
Even as the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) marks the 60th anniversary of its founding in 2021, Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng is observing current global trends that signal — in his view — the need to evolve.
"60 years of nation-building in partnership, essentially with the PAP government throughout. By all measures, Singapore has succeeded, I think way beyond what our forefathers could have imagined. And the journey has been a fruitful one, in the symbiotic relationship with the PAP throughout.
But even as we are succeeding, the world is changing around us with all the different geostrategic changes and the power balance, even the economic model of globalisation that created so much wealth in the world is now changing because of the inequalities."
Ng elaborated that Singapore's demographic profile has shifted rapidly since independence, from a youthful population to a rapidly-ageing one.
By 2030, according to current trends, there will be just 2.1 workers supporting each retiree, a steep contrast from the 5.6 figure in 2015, the same year that Ng entered politics.
"Understanding this is critical, not just for NTUC's success, but very importantly to be relevant to the new working class of Singapore," he added.
PMEs feeling disadvantaged
Ng noted that Professionals, Managers and Executives (PMEs) currently make up the majority of the Singaporean workforce at about 60 per cent.
As Singapore ages, these workers experience a relatively new phenomenon of feeling disadvantaged.
Ng cited an opinion piece written by Tommy Koh in the Straits Times about ageism, and the difficulties older workers face in finding jobs.
In the past, the older workers were the rank-and-file while the PMEs were the young up-and-comers. So NTUC previously did not represent the PME workers as much, and a gap formed.
Going forward, NTUC will therefore look to close that gap and "champion" the PME cause. Moves have already been made, with Labour Member of Parliament Patrick Tay tasked to head a PME taskforce, which have conducted comprehensive surveys with some 8,000 PME workers in the past few months.
To help close that PME gap, NTUC is formulating a set of recommendations, together with partners in the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), which will be surfaced to the government later this year.
Ring-fencing certain jobs for local PMEs
Ng said one idea that emerged from discussions with the PMEs was the possibility of "ring-fencing" certain jobs for locals.
"Are there certain jobs in our economy that we can put some ring-fencing around to allow our local PMEs to be the first call?" he said.
He cited the example of jobs in the Human Resources (HR) sector, as they do not require specific technology that locals don't have, and it requires skills that Singaporeans are good at.
"I thought that was a pretty interesting idea we got from the discussions, and we'll look seriously at how we can refine the thinking, and suggest maybe in time to come, think about certain possibilities in protecting Singaporean PME jobs where we have the skills, and (hand the) advantage to local applicants."
In response to a question from Mothership about whether this could potentially hurt competitiveness in certain sectors, Ng said there must be a balance between the macro policy aim of economic growth, and the micro perspective of protecting local workers.
"This is a very delicate balance, and at this stage, we don't want to (jump in) and impose a law," he said. "We have to be very selective and careful to make sure we do not deprive ourselves of the best talents that can bring value to Singapore, but at the same time, take care of our local PMEs."
Ng elaborated that in sectors where certain skills are needed, such as high-tech, companies can utilise the Capability Transfer Programme to bring in overseas talent to help local workers gain necessary skills. But in other areas, like HR, Ng said he is "reasonably persuaded" that ring-fencing could work.
Collaboration with employers
HR practitioners can also work with NTUC to implement the Fair Consideration Framework and help to reduce any possible unfair treatment against PMEs.
"We are not adverse (to) taking these steps further," added Ng, again referring to Tommy Koh's suggestion to make age discrimination illegal.
While Ng agrees with Koh that such an option should be viewed as a last resort, workers might be interested in the NTUC's ability to help shape legislation through the efforts of Labour Members of Parliament.
Still, Ng favours collaboration with employers first, before going to the "extreme" of mandatory laws to afford employment opportunities for PMEs.
Working with government to create favourable economic conditions
In response to a question from Mothership about Tan See Leng's recent appointment as Manpower Minister (taking over on May 15), Ng said that "See Leng and I interact every week" and added that he thinks they are "like-minded" in matters affecting labour.
However, he also has due considerations for the incoming Minister for Trade and Industry (Gan Kim Yong) to make sure the macro economy is well-positioned for growth.
"Without good growth in the economy, it would mean that our businesses will not have better profitability. If there's no better profitability, my interests as Sec-Gen and my workers is that there will be no better wages."
He said he intends to work with them and also the government to create favourable economic conditions.
NTUC Income can help PMEs in transition
As NTUC Income is an affiliated organisation, Ng mentioned the possibility of having it providing support for PMEs in transition.
He recounted how the PMEs that NTUC reached out to spoke of the need for support during transition periods, such as after retrenchment or while PMEs are upgrading their skills, where they need additional support.
NTUC Income could therefore help such workers, whether the support comes government or NTUC, to get the assistance they need.
NTUC in a better position to help its members, Ng urges more workers to join
However, Ng reminded his audience, that NTUC can only represent the PMEs if they choose to join up.
"If I have no members, I cannot represent you in the company, I cannot represent you legally," he said. Many of these initiatives are not available to non-members. Right now, NTUC represents about 30 per cent of the Singapore workforce.
In response to a question from the media, about his target to reach 1.5 million members by 2030, Ng said that the likelihood of reaching 1 million soon is "very high" and NTUC is on track to reach its target by 2030.
In response to a question from Mothership, Patrick Tay shared that he has met workers who told him that they were discouraged from joining NTUC as a member because "their HR wouldn't like it."
However, Tay pointed out there's a misconception between membership and representation. While representation has some legal considerations, membership is open to every worker, with even some CEOs joining NTUC as members.
Top image by Karen Lui.