Why Joining Unions Is Like Buying ‘Job Insurance’

Many people are anxious about the possibility of losing their jobs due to retrenchment. It becomes even more worrying when employers have a ‘slow to hire, quick to fire’ HR approach.

Take for instance how two SMRT employees got sacked before the completion of investigations into the fatal train track accident of March 22. Bear in mind that SMRT is a finalist in 4 award categories (yes, FOUR) at the HR Excellence Awards 2016! If you face a similar situation as these two SMRT workers, who will be there to speak up for you? Hopefully, you have the backing of a union.

Bosses might not be especially fond of unions but often will have to work with unions for the benefit of the (retrenched) staff.

Recently, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) announced that it is cutting its workforce by 10% and the Creative Media and Publishing Union (CMPU) was notified about the job cuts just 30 minutes(!) before the announcement was made to SPH staff!

Thankfully, according to a Channel NewsAsia report, “SPH said it will work with the relevant unions to ensure that fair terms are given to affected staff and will extend to them the necessary help to support them in their transition.”

If you have health insurance, and something untoward happens to you, you have a safety net to fall back on, with payouts that can take care of things like hospital bills, loss of income, etc.

Likewise, if you’re backed by a union and NTUC, you can get financial assistance, legal aid, training opportunities, and also help in landing a new job.

Security Officers

Security Officers and NTUC leaders (file pic)

For instance, during the crisis in 2009, there was the U Care Fund to help union members who had their take-home pay cut by 50% (they were given NTUC FairPrice vouchers).

During good times, companies may be asked to contribute an amount which goes towards a hardship grant – this goes out to the really deserving cases should hard times hit and the company cannot pay out retrenchment benefits.

Unions also help workers who have been dismissed unfairly or have been denied CPF monies or overtime pay, for example. For those who do get retrenched, the unions can help bring in e2i to place workers in new jobs, and help them out with résumés and interviews.

In the event that a worker gets into trouble (see attached article below), the union can help plead for leniency, demotion or suspension instead of outright dismissal.

It’s clear to me how joining a union will benefit workers. From the employers’ standpoint, does it make sense to have the company unionized? According to NTUC, yes it does.

The unions act as the bridge between employers and workers, understanding what the management requires and communicating this to the workers in a way the latter can accept, thus helping the company implement change quickly.

But who are these people from the union, who go about linking employees and employers? Who are these people whom employees can turn to for help? They are called union leaders and Branch Officials (who are union representatives of unionised companies or “branches”), and are supported by Industrial Relations Officers from NTUC.

NTUC Unions

(from left) Industrial Relations Officers Raven Lee and Samantha Lee, together with Assistant Secretary-General Cham Hui Fong (Director of NTUC’s Industrial Relations Department) and a writer

I got to meet Raven Lee, an Industrial Relations Officer with NTUC.

Raven says that his job involves everything from “cardboard collection” after giving out sign-up gifts during membership drives to holding learned conversations with C-suite executives. Everyday, he goes about multiple meetings to understand employee concerns and management directions.

~ 5 Quick Questions With An IRO ~

1) What were you working as in your previous job? Why did you decide to become an Industrial Relations Officer (IRO)?

I was in B2B sales, and the bottom line chasing didn’t inspire me much. When I joined NTUC, it was really not too informed a choice. I knew that I wanted to learn from a structured organization with its many social enterprises, and it was actually through the interviews that I found out about the work that the Labour Movement does. The work that we do gets more and more meaningful as we go along, and as long as you believe in the cause, you will find the work very rewarding.

2) How many unions have you been the IRO for, and which has been the most enjoyable / memorable, and why?

I have been with 5 unions over my 10 years with NTUC:

  • Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees’ Union (SMEEU),
  • Union of Security Employees (USE),
  • Food, Drinks and Allied Workers’ Union (FDAWU),
  • Attractions, Resorts and Entertainment Union (AREU),
  • and now Singapore Industrial and Services Employees Union (SISEU).

They are really all memorable in their own ways, which keeps the job interesting and engaging because of the diverse and different learnings and experiences.

I find it refreshing to work with Branch Officials from different companies and industries. These Branch Officials are unsung heroes as they volunteer their time after work doing a good cause by taking care of their fellow workers, to serve their colleagues’ needs.

3) What sort of qualifications and skill sets does an IRO need to possess? You have a Diploma in Business Administration in Public Relations and Advertising from Singapore Polytechnic, right? How has that helped in your career? And what about your degree?

An IRO needs to have good people skills to be able to connect the different stakeholders. A high Emotional Quotient (EQ) will help the IRO build rapport and manage issues and reach win-win solutions by understanding the motivations of different parties and making those different objectives meet.

Aside from that, technical knowledge can be trained on the job, and honed through experience. Understanding of the industries that the IRO operates in will make him/her more effective, and it will be helpful to be analytical and be able to think on his/her feet.

I have a Degree in Business Admin (majoring in Marketing) and this, in the early years, helped me to better sell ideas and craft sound campaigns for the different projects that we do.

4) You have spent a decade in NTUC. What have been your thoughts on career progression prospects?

The day never gets too old because IROs are rotated through industries, with many training opportunities. We have a specialist track as well as a management track so IROs can choose a career progression that best suits their interests.

5) Secret ballots sound pretty exciting. What else is cool / exciting about your job? 

In a secret ballot, as long as 50% of workers (+ 1 vote) are in favor of the company being unionized, the company will have no choice but to agree. In turn, the company can tap on the unions for advice in managing manpower, employment and jobs training, know-how for setting up family-friendly workplaces, best practices in HR, etc.

Besides conducting secret ballots and listening to workers’ feedback, we do all sorts of things on our job. We gave out packets of bread with our flyers to workers waiting for their transport at 3am. We passed out mandarin oranges at 6am to workers heading to work on CNY, we stroll the back of houses of hotels, enter yachts that are being built, and we even found out about how a certain fast food restaurant makes french fries faster after embarking on e2i’s funding programmes.

It is appropriate to say that a new experience awaits you every day as you make your way to improve the working conditions of the working people in Singapore.

Interesting fact: There are union “busters” (consultants) engaged by companies to teach them how to win secret ballots. For instance, the company will send the Malaysian workers home that day so they cannot vote, or have workers on different shifts. To counter this, ballots are sometimes held over 1 week to ensure maximum attendance. Test your union-busting knowledge here.

6) Have you come across any disguised retrenchments?

There are companies which suddenly raise KPIs and then use “poor performance” as a reason to terminate the contract. This is why workers are better protected if they are unionized, where they can feedback to a Branch Official or an Industrial Relations Officer to investigate if there is something brewing that shouldn’t be happening.

(Labour MP Patrick Tay has shared that the NTUC U PME Centre has seen a rise in complaints of disguised retrenchments. Here are some examples of how companies disguise retrenchments).


Assistant Secretary-General Cham Hui Fong (Director of NTUC’s Industrial Relations Department) shared that there are currently over 100,000 companies in Singapore but just a small fraction (about 1,500) are unionized.

Hence, NTUC has embarked on other efforts to represent PMEs, SME workers, startup workers and freelance and self-employed workers.

 And the good news is that you can be a General Branch member to get help from NTUC even if your company (as a whole) isn’t unionized.

NTUC Union Membership Fee

Source: UTES

Getting unionized is akin to getting insurance. You won’t need the insurance when you’re healthy and well (that’s when you ought to be regularly paying your premiums), but when tough times strike, you’ll be glad that you have set up a form of protection for what you deem is important to you. By the way, a general member pays $9 a month.

I believe it is “retrenchment season” right now. And it is probably safe to say that no industry will be spared. Yes, the unions can advise employers to be responsible. Yes, the unions can do their best to ensure the ‘Protection, Placement, Progression’ of workers. But ultimately, it is up to the individual (yes, YOU) to decide if you want to join the union.

(*This article was written in partnership with the Labour Movement to raise awareness of your workplace protection and rights.)