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”. 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.81). 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...