Industrial Conflict

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Which theories or theories of industrial conflict, if any, can best explain the state of industrial conflict in Singapore?

Justify your answer.

This essay is based on the assumption that Singapore’s industrial relations tend to be pluralistic in nature. The pluralistic approach to employment relations as defined by Bray, Waring and Cooper (2011) is that the employment relationship contains a potential to conflict. Hence, the question is the extent of industrial conflict in Singapore and which theories can support this.

Industrial conflict is defined by Kornhauser et al (1954) as the ‘total range of behaviours and attitudes that express opposition and divergent orientations between industrial owners and managers, on the one hand, and working people and their organisations on the other hand.’ There are many schools of thought explaining industrial conflict, one of which is the John Dunlop’s model. The extended John Dunlop model is the tripartite gum model which is practiced in Singapore as seen in fig 1.1 (fig 1.1 Appendix) Three main actors in an industrial relation system— government, employers and employees.. These three actors are able to carry out effective negotiations under the interaction process of the tripartism system to bring about solutions to industrial conflict present in Singapore. The basic function of the tripartism system in Singapore is to employ peaceful employment relations as well as to improve the quality of life for workers through economic development for the nation. Additionally, Singapore has effective manpower policies coupled with effective legislation, rules and regulations that explains the lack of industrial conflict in Singapore.

Another assumption to consider for this essay is that industrial conflict is to be broadly classified into covert or overt conflict. Overt conflict is more collective, organised and confrontational which takes place in the form of protests and strikes whilst covert conflict is individual, spontaneous and unorganised (Deery, Plowman, Walsh and Brown, 2001) and takes place in the more subtle form of absenteeism, accidents, turnovers and even sabotage (Tan, 2004). In Singapore, there is no overt conflict due to the absence of strikes.

The existence of covert conflict in Singapore and the theories that support it is debatable. In my opinion, covert conflict does not exist widely because of paternalistic government approaches that result in strong union pressures to resolve conflicts before it escalates. It is also attributable to legislation, conciliation, mediation, arbitration and the setting up of the industrial court that explains the lack of industrial conflict in Singapore. However, it still does exist in the form of low productivity levels which I will explain below.

The minimal industrial conflict in Singapore is due to institutionalisation of legislation and trade unions in Singapore. This is backed up by the theory defined by Wright Mills (1948) which explains that the institutionalisation of trade unions over time results in the decline in industrial conflict. As explained previously the evolving roles of trade unions in Singapore had reached a “symbiotic” relationship with the government. Additionally, the institutionalisation of legislation, rules and regulations are in placed to ensure that employers, employees and unions work together to secure the peace of the employment relationship.

Examples of legislations include the Employment Act and Trade Union Act. Recently, Chua Yini (2012) reported a wage dispute case that was resolved almost immediately when 200 foreign workers staged a protest in Tampines as they claimed that they did not received their salaries. Under the Ministry of Manpower Act, disputes between workers and their employers were settled amicably without allowing such conflicts to become worse (Appendix pg1).

Similarly, another theory by Clegg (1976) suggests that the absence of industrial conflict is due to...
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