Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why the ILO changed its mind

Oct 25, 2008

S'pore has proven that its tripartite approach to labour ties works: MM

By Goh Chin Lian

THE International Labour Organisation (ILO) used to say Singapore was taking the wrong tack with how its unions operated. It has now changed its view.

It even encourages trade unions from developing countries to learn about Singapore's tripartite approach to industrial relations, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said last night.

He was speaking to participants of the Singapore Human Capital Summit, where he was asked by Mr Md Mosleh Uddin, Secretary of Bangladesh's Ministry of Establishment, for advice on dealing with unions.

Responding, Mr Lee said ILO representatives used to tell Singapore that the way the unions were run was wrong.

'You must have unions that confront employers, hard bargaining, then out of that comes maximum benefits for the employee,' he recalled.

Having started out in his career as a lawyer representing unions in negotiations, Mr Lee said he understood what unions wanted.

When Singapore left Malaysia in 1965 and was bereft of a hinterland, it faced two options.

It could continue with a climate of strikes, sit-ins and riots carried out by the mainly communist-controlled unions, and perish.

Or it could, as it did, seek to survive by making itself useful to the developed countries of the world.

This was done through several measures: restoring to employers their right to hire and fire; using a secret ballot to decide whether to go on strike; having disputes which involved essential services settled by arbitration; and ensuring fair arbitration.

'So over the years, we had unions working together with the Government and working in negotiations with employers in a tripartite fashion called the National Wages Council,' he said.

The council makes yearly recommendations after reviewing the economy's performance.

But Singapore's approach is not easy to duplicate, said Mr Lee.

'It was a stroke of destiny that created this condition, and if we do not keep this sense of equity, it will be lost.'

It means that employers have to not only give unions a fair deal but also ensure that they make sufficient returns for their business and shareholders.

The Government's role is to 'give everybody a fair bite' through good housing, education and health services.

'They are heavily subsidised, so you can be a taxi driver's son or a hawker's son, you will not be denied healthy living conditions,' he said.

'How you perform is up to you - your motivation, your willingness to put in the effort to learn, to acquire knowledge and skills and to be useful to the economy. And that's how we began.'

Mr Lee noted that a United Nations Habitat report yesterday cited Singapore as being the only city in the world not to have slums. He said this was also the result of a deliberate effort from the outset.

'If we have slums, we will have a lot of dispossessed people who get alienated and finally become rebellious.'

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