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Are Unions Really Powerless?

For a long time, NTUC meant only one thing: fair prices at a supermarket. However, that changed when Mr Abdul Samad, vice-president of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and NMP, shared his experiences with unions.

Mr Samad’s passion for workers’ rights and interests showed throughout our conversation and is a reminder that this is the man who rose up in the recent parliament session to rebuke accusations that NTUC did not do its workers justice. 

Fiery. Picture credits: Unscrambled.sg

Admittedly, I myself knew little about the trade unions in Singapore. Even though I have graduated for a few years now, most of my work has been self-employed and I was never even invited to join any unions, unlike Dzar who was invited several times to join his respective industries’ unions. ‘Why should I pay that $9 a month?’ was the thought, echoed by Mr Samad when he first started out in unions himself.

He admitted he did not think it was necessary in the beginning, unaware of all the benefits he himself had gotten thanks to the unions looking out for their workers. Now, he is a leader of the labour movement, staking his claims at the meeting tables to fight for fair wages for workers.

Forgive me. Picture credits: SingPost Centre

But what if you are not an employed worker? My parents and I have had little experience with unions because we have mostly been self-employed. I was curious, then, if NTUC looked after the interests of people like us. It made sense for unions to speak with employers to advocate for the interests of employees, but what if you didn’t have an employer? What if you signed a contract for service and have none of the protections and rights that a contract of service provides you?

This mode of working has been becoming more and more prevalent, especially with the pandemic. Even some of the people providing services at our vaccination centres were just considered contractors, much less the many delivery personnel fuelling our Grab-dictions ever since Circuit Breaker.

Everywhere every time everyone. Picture credits: Google Play

SIRS. The answer reminded me of how some benefits can simply go forgotten. A year ago, at the height of the economic hardships brought about by the pandemic, 200,000 self-employed workers received about $1.8 billion under the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). NTUC not only helped administer the entire process, but also provided enhanced benefits for union members.

I also learnt that NTUC has an entire unit dedicated to freelancers and self-employed persons, NTUC U FSE, that provides training resources and welfare benefits for this segment of workers. While it is impressive that there are all these opportunities available for Grab drivers and delivery riders, I could not help but wonder if I was the only one who never even knew they existed.

There’s even an association for delivery riders??? Picture credits: ufse.org.sg

Mr Samad shared some difficulties unions faced in attracting young people into their ranks. Beyond the fact that some people don’t even know what unions are for, some people are doubtful if the unions actually make much change for the workers on the ground. Unlike in some other countries, NTUC in Singapore is not very adversarial in their approach. Tripartism, as Mr Samad put it, was the way that Singapore handles its labour movement. The government, unions and employers are supposed to work together to uplift worker’s conditions and provide the best middle ground that provides win-win solutions.

But this can also mean that unions can appear weak or soft and too compromising for the other parties. I suppose how effective you think this approach is depends on how you view employers – are they capable of actually caring for their employees’ welfare and interests, or are they soulless and only driven by the bottom line?

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Nonetheless, while Mr Samad acknowledged this perception, he was confident of the benefits that NTUC has brought to workers from all walks of life. As a union leader walking the ground, he has seen for himself the arguments and tug of war that take place in these meetings. To him, the power of unions must come from the numbers. What demands can he make with only 10 people in a company behind him? Imagine if it were 100.

He shared a story of a CEO that berated a union leader for ‘trying to teach him to run his company’. The man responded, ‘No, just teaching you to respect your workers’. That, ultimately, is the goal of a union, and that is only possible if the union has the members to back up their demands. It is difficult to complain about a change that doesn’t happen if you don’t act to make that change. To Mr Samad, that act can be as simple as a union membership.

Click on the links below to listen to the 3 part podcast on Plan B on Spotify.

Part 1: NMP Union Leader

Part 2: NMP Union Leader

Part 3: NMP Union Leader

Darren Aadam Mak

Written by Darren Aadam Mak

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