Trade Unions in Singapore and China

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Compare and contrast trade unions in Singapore and China. Do you agree with Barr (2000, p.481) and Taylor and Qi Li (2007) that the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all? Justify your answer.


With all their faults, trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men, than any other association of men (Darrow 2009). However, this is not the case in Singapore and China. Michael D. Barr (2000, p.481) as well as Bill Taylor and Qi Li (2007) claimed that the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all but merely a government organ, reflecting the fact that the NTUC and ACFTU is a branch of the government, defending the government’s interests. This essay will begin by individually examining the trade unions in Singapore and China followed by a comparison between trade unions in both countries, and finally provide a justified stand to the argument of whether the ‘trade unions’ in these two countries are not really trade unions at all.

Trade Unions in Singapore

Best known for ‘tripartism’ or close relationships between government, business and trade unions, Singapore’s industrial relations system comprises of the People’s Action Party (PAP), National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) representing the government, employees and employers respectively (refer to Appendix).

NTUC was created in 1961 when the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), which had backed the PAP in its successful drive for self-government, split into the pro-PAP NTUC and the leftist Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU). The SATU collapsed in 1963 following the government's detention of its leaders during Operation Coldstore and its subsequence official deregistration on November 13, 1963, leaving NTUC as the sole trade union centre. Presently, over 98% of union members are in unions affiliated with the NTUC (Ngaim & Tay 2008). After the PAP's decisive electoral victory in 1968, the government passed the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act of 1968, which severely limited workers' rights to strike. From 1969, the NTUC adopted, in its own words, "a cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers” (NTUC Online 2009). Specifically, NTUC represent workers in collective bargaining as well as in other areas like appeals against wrongful dismissals, negotiations for retrenchment benefits and advice on employment contracts. NTUC can represent both rank-and-file and executive workers.

Trade Unions in China

Following the consolidation of communism rule in 1945, there has only been one union organization tolerated, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The ACFTU was set up in May 1925 and reactivated only in 1978 when Deng re-established their importance as part of the urban reforms in the early 1980s. Like NTUC, ACFTU is the leading federation for local trade union federations and national industrial unions in China (Taylor & Li 2007). In fact, it is the largest trade union in the world with 134 million members in 1,713,000 primary trade union organizations (ACFTU 2007). All workers in China are eligible to apply for the union membership and are required to contribute five percent of their monthly salary as membership fees. The membership continues and they will not be required to pay when they retire or are unemployed (ACFTU 2007). Like Singapore’s industrial relations, China also had their version of a tripartite system that was introduced with the help from International Labor Organisation (ILO) in the early 1990’s (Tan 2007). Since the early 1990s it has been regulated by the Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China.

ACFTU’s role is to convey the Government’s policies to the working class and secure the...
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