Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Singapore

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2007
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2007 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Singapore, 9 June 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca0e3f.html [accessed 31 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 4,400,000
Capital: Singapore
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 98 – 100 – 138 – 182 – (105 – denounced)

Several restrictions in the labour law are outdated and not applied in practice; unions have asked for the law to be revised in order to reflect that. Under a legislative amendment introduced in 2004, union members no longer have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their representatives and the employer. They do, however, retain the power to vote their union leadership out of office.

Trade union rights in law

Private sector – limitations on the right to organise: The Constitution gives workers the right to join trade unions in the private sector, although the Trade Unions Act makes an exception for uniformed personnel. Any group of seven or more prospective members can form a union, which is acceptable by international labour standards. However, parliament may impose restrictions on the formation of a union on the grounds of security, public order or morality.

Formation is also subject to the approval of the Registrar of Trade Unions who has wide-ranging powers to refuse or cancel registration, particularly where a union already exists for workers in a particular occupation or industry. Trade unions must also submit new rules, or alterations to their existing rules, to the Registrar for approval within seven days of the rule change. The Registrar has the right to refuse the rule change if in the Registrar's discretion the rule change is either unlawful or "oppressive or unreasonable".

Public sector: The Trade Unions Act still prohibits government employees from joining trade unions, although the law gives the power to the President of Singapore to make exceptions from this provision. The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) was granted such an exemption, and its scope of representation has expanded over the years to cover all public sector employees except the most senior civil servants. In addition to AUPE, 15 other public sector unions, including public employees paid on a daily rate, are exempted.

Interference in internal trade union affairs: The Trade Unions Act restricts the right of trade unions to elect their officers, and whom they may employ. Foreigners and those with criminal convictions may not hold union office or become employees of unions. However, exemptions can be granted by the Minister.

Trade union members who are under 21 years of age also need prior written approval from the Minister to serve as a trustee or executive of a trade union.

Despite the fact that Singapore has an increasingly multinational work force, the Trade Unions Act bars any person "who is not a citizen of Singapore" from serving as a national or branch officer of a trade union unless prior written approval is received from the Minister. The Act also stipulates that a foreign national cannot be hired as an employee of a trade union with prior written agreement from the Minister. Similarly, a foreign national is forbidden to serve as a trustee of a trade union without the Minister's written permission.

The Act also limits what unions can spend their funds on, and prohibits payments to political parties or the use of funds for political purposes.

Collective bargaining rights restricted: Under an amendment to the Trade Unions Act adopted on 20 April 2004, union members no longer have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and the employer. The change in the law was in direct response to a dispute involving the pilots' union, Airline Pilots Association – Singapore (ALPA-S), described in the 2005 Survey. The NTUC, however, notes that union members retain the power to vote out their leaders by secret ballot during elections at the union delegates' conference, or at an extraordinary meeting called by members. The amendment also does not preclude union leaders from consulting their members to secure a mandate on terms of the collective agreement that are acceptable to them, at any time before the executive committee reaches agreement with the management. Union members are also not precluded from demanding that their unions reflect their views before making any proposal or concluding a collective agreement. Both happen in practice.

Restrictions on the right to strike: To call a strike, 50 per cent plus one of all the trade union's members must vote in favour, rather than the internationally accepted standard of over 50 per cent of those actually taking part in the vote. Workers in "essential services" are required to give 14 days notice to an employer before taking strike action, although strikes are prohibited in some essential services such as water, gas and electricity.

There is no specific legislation which prohibits retaliation against strikers.

Collective bargaining – court can reject agreements: Collective agreements between labour and management are renewed every two to three years, although wage increases are generally negotiated annually. Guidelines for negotiations are recommended by the National Wages Council, which includes labour, industry and state representatives. The aim of the council is also to provide a means by which labour can influence government policy on wage-related issues.

Collective agreements must be certified by the tripartite Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) before they come into effect. The IAC can refuse certification on the grounds of public interest, although in practice it has never refused to certify a collective agreement for this reason. Certification protects union members, in that a certified agreement is legally binding to both the employers and the union. Transfers and lay-offs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, although unions have the right to ask for the reasons behind the retrenchment and are not precluded from negotiating compensation for workers in such cases.

Disputes can be settled by means of consultations, negotiations and conciliation through the Ministry of Manpower, where the procedures are clearly laid down by the Industrial Relations Act. If conciliation fails, the parties may submit their case to the IAC. In limited situations, the law provides for a system of recourse to compulsory arbitration, which can put an end to collective bargaining at the request of only one of the parties, although this provision of the law is rarely invoked.

The last time it was invoked was in 2004, when the Minister of Manpower compulsorily referred a dispute between the Singapore Industrial and Service Employees Union (SISEU) and a textile company to the IAC over the management's delay in concluding a collective agreement.

Increased representation for executives: Trade unions succeeded in getting the Industrial Relations Act amended in July 2002, to allow rank-and-file unions to represent executive employees in disputes concerning dismissal, retrenchment benefits and breach of individual contract. This amendment does not affect the right of executives to form their own unions.

Trade union rights in practice

With the exception of five unions representing about 2,400 workers, the rest of the country's 64 unions are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), a labour congress closely linked to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). During the 2006 elections, a number of NTUC labour candidates ran for Parliament on the PAP ticket, and all were successfully elected. The recently retired Secretary General of the NTUC serves as the Chairman of the PAP, a post which he also held while still active in the NTUC, and the current NTUC Secretary General and Assistant Secretary General are also members of the PAP Central Executive Committee. The current NTUC Secretary General holds a seat in the Cabinet as a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. The NTUC-PAP relationship, which dates back to founding of the NTUC in 1961, is described as "symbiotic" and was formally endorsed in 1980 at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates Conference. It was publicly reaffirmed in December 2004. At the end of 2006, 22 newly elected MPs from the PAP were appointed as advisors to unions affiliated to the NTUC.

Union leaders are elected through secret ballot.

Restrictions not applied: Practice suggests that many of the laws are outdated, as in reality many of the potential restrictions are not applied.

The unions have called for these outdated restrictions to be removed from the country's legislation.

Strikes: The government's tight rein on industrial action, and the tradition of non-confrontational industrial relations, has meant that there have been only two recorded days of strike action since 1978.

Migrant Workers: Foreign domestic workers have little opportunity to organise to defend their rights or demand improvements in their conditions of work. However, the NTUC reports that it does seek to advocate for their rights through its Migrant Workers' Forum.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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