Who will lead labour after Lim Swee Say?

Love him or hate him (or puzzle at his odd quips), Lim Swee Say has been a fixture in the Labour Movement for the last 8 years and has exercised considerable influence in this sphere. But now that he has announced his clear intention not to fill the post again, the question is: who will (and will it matter)?

Every NTUC Secretary-General since Devan Nair has held a cabinet position, often concurrently. I don’t expect that to change this time around. Why this is so is probably because of the longstanding relationships between the NTUC and the PAP, as an alliance between the two had formed during the struggle for independence and during the years after. Some say that the PAP controls the NTUC. Others say that the NTUC has clout in government. Perhaps both are true.

Either way, this means that the pool of candidates is not very large – look at the cabinet. The other heirs apparent over the years have faded away – Josephine Teo, Halimah Yaacob and Ong Ye Kung all once held key positions but are no longer with the movement.

Neither Deputy Secretary-General Heng Chee How nor the Assistant Secraties-General: Ms Cham Hui Fong, Mr Patrick Tay Teck Guan, Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, Mr Ang Hin Kee and Mr Zainal Sapari seem to possess the political clout for the position.

In my reckoning, it seems possible that Josephine Teo may be positioned to take up the mantle, but at the same time she still doesn’t command the political power necessary for the position. It would be a step backwards as well, since she had already left the NTUC to fulfill her role as Minister of State.

Grace Fu seems another possibility, since she is also a minister in the PMO and well exposed to the private sector, but an another interesting candidate pops up within the cabinet.

Chan Chun Sing.

Kee chiu.

Kee chiu.

Whatever you want to say about him, he has a certain demeanour that the rank-and-file can understand; something that reminds me of Lim Swee Say – very “on the ground” (okay lah, “low class” if you’re a hater), in spite of a career as a SAF scholar. Moreover Chan Chun Sing was the chosen replacement for Lim Swee Say in my Buona Vista constituency. Who is to say that history will not repeat itself (because it is going to be the same people making these decisions)?

Chan Chun Sing as NTUC Secretary-General will throw up synergies with his current portfolio as Minister for Social and Family development. Hopefully his constant exposure to those who are suffering the most will mean that he will find avenues to raise wages to sustainable levels as NTUC Sec-Gen.

We’ll have to wait for October to see.

How raising wages could help raise productivity

While it is regrettable that the NWC didn’t have enough sense to raise the wage increment threshold from $1,000 to $1,200 after two years, I’m actually more surprised by another statement made in the NWC statement.

The NWC’s recommendation was that “real wage increases should be in line with productivity growth over the long term”. Sounds sensible (because it is), but wait a second and think about that formula.

Yes formula.

The formula for labour productivity is essentially the value of the output of the worker divided by the value of the input of the worker. The G likes to reduce all this to dollars, and not just dollars, monetised dollars, basically what a company sells. So based on the recommended G formula from the “Way to Go” website (Singapore’s modern productivity drive post-Teamy the Bee), it doesn’t matter if a worker produces, say, 1,000,000 units of Item A. If the company doesn’t sell any of it, then labour productivity is considered low.

Poor worker. Slaved his ass off and can’t get a raise because his company basically sucked.

SPRING has a more generic calculation, but that’s for internal audits – we’re interested in the overarching G definition of “productivity”, which the NWC is using, and that is money.

I don’t believe that every company leeches profits in order to torture workers. Some do, but others don’t. Even so, when companies/NWC say that they can’t increase real wages because productivity hasn’t increased, what they’re saying is (assuming the worker isn’t a lazy douchebag):

a) we can’t convince our customers or clients to pay more, so I can’t pay my workers more (which is what is happening with the security industry after decades of cheap-sourcing).

b) I can’t get my damn act together and sell the goods and services that you produce for the company profitably, so I can’t give you a raise.

c) Singapore’s companies are so lousy at putting the factors of production together efficiently, so I guess all you workers will have to suffer for it. Sorry.

It seems to me that one way to raise productivity is to raise wages! If unions can play hardball and push wages up, then the cost of goods and services, especially in the local context, will be forced to rise (international trade is another different problem, which is why Singapore tries to stay away from international competition in low value-added goods and services).

For example, raising cleaners’ wages, as NTUC has managed to do (by basically negotiating properly and getting the G to play along), will mean that the buck is now passed to cleaning companies. Those cleaning companies worth their salt will survive by passing on the cost to customers (maybe even add a little more fat into the billing if their product/service is sufficiently differentiated). VOILA! Productivity! (also because we assume that although labour productivity may stagnate, capital productivity will actually rise).

The downside is that the workers with the higher wages do pay for SOME (not all) of the cost that is passed down to the customers, because sometimes they are the customer (HDB S&CC charges for example). The rest of it is paid for by other companies (boo hoo, higher cost of doing business), the G, or by the rest of us who didn’t get a raise (boo hoo, inflation). But three cheers all around (for SG) if we can sell some value-added, innovative, unique, differentiated product globally and make other economies pay for it (SG needs entrepreneurs)! Okay, I’m getting into the international economics thing I didn’t want to get into now… back to local.

Sure, some companies will die along the way, but as long as the economy/market doesn’t actually shrink during that time, the displaced workers will find new employment at this higher wage level elsewhere (at a more productive company that has managed to convince clients to pay more).

Now I’m waiting for the economists to come and try to point out all the exceptions to my suggestion and why it won’t work (in theory).

Union vs Employer: new dawn for collective bargaining?

Friday’s ST (Home section, p2) ran an article about the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (SISEU) winning a court case against an errant employer. The NTUC’s legal arm, led by Mr Patrick Tay, took the company to the Industrial Arbitration Court for not giving annual increments to workers. Unusual.

Let’s face it, almost everyone in Singapore thinks that the best thing about being a NTUC member is the supermarket discount. You need look for no other anecdote to tell you that Singapore’s unions, at least to the face of the public, are practically unknown for their wage bargaining, dispute resolution, worker representation work. In other words, Singapore’s unions are best known for not being unions.

The NTUC has long been accused of being in bed with both government and businesses (and not without reason). Many workers have seen wage stagnation and breaches of workers’ rights and have no idea who to turn to for recourse.

That’s why this little news report sticks out. 41 unionised workers got a ruling for a built-in annual wage increase of 2.5%, or $50 (more than 2.5%) if they earned less than $2,000 – less than the 5% initially sought, but within the NWC guidelines.

NTUC’s Patrick Tay, who is also MP for Nee Soon GRC, shared that his legal arm fought four cases in court last year. One was even for PMEs, who are not even normally represented by unions. When the Industrial Relations Act is amended to give PMEs union representation in the future, you can bet that Patrick Tay’s team will start to get really busy.

Until then, the best thing to do is spread that this union membership thing isn’t just for discounts. If all else fails you can still sue your union.

Workers lied, new SOP for vice raids

PARODY (because some idiot is still going to misunderstand).

Since MOM made the claim that the crane-top workers lied about accommodations, new measures have been put in place for vice busts around the country. MOM happily gives vile, exploitative employers a WHOLE WEEK to clean up a dorm before inspecting it, so that they can then happily announce that workers’ complaints are false, and living conditions are GREAT! “They climbed the crane for no bloody reason, really, and should be thankful that they have such digs,” said an MOM officer as he reclined in his air-con office. “How dare they make claims against their awesome, respectable employers? Don’t they know that employers create jobs, and that without jobs we would all starve? Chuck them in jail for complaining.”

Perfect living conditions for slaves, er, workers.

MOM will also now require the following paperwork before entertaining future complaints:

a) the payslips that your employer didn’t give you

b) proof of overtime from the records that your employer never keeps

c) the work injury report from the doctor that your employer didn’t let you see

d) the passports that your employer illegally confiscated

e) any other documentation that doesn’t exist because MOM didn’t make laws to mandate them and wouldn’t enforce them anyway

The Singapore Police are taking a page out of MOM’s playbook now. In a bid to make themselves look good, they will now be announcing drug busts and other vice raids a week in advance. “This will give all the illegal scum enough time to clear out,” said a top cop while on his lunch break, “arrests will drop, we’ll have less paperwork to do, and residents will be assured that for that one day in the month/year, there will really be no crime in the area.”

THIS IS A PARODY (in case you like to read stuff starting in the middle).