Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October 2014, 16:06 GMT

2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Singapore

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Singapore, 20 November 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca6f32.html [accessed 22 October 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)

A number of restrictions continue to exist in the labour law but in many cases, discretion is provided for the Minister of Manpower to make exemptions. Foreign workers, who comprise a significant proportion of the workforce, continue to be legally barred from serving as officers, trustees, or staff of trade unions. Union members do not have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their representatives and the employer. The vast majority of unionized workers are members of a union affiliated to the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). There were no strikes during the year.

Trade union rights in law

Private sector – limitations exist on the right to organise: The Constitution gives workers the right to join trade unions in the private sector, with any group of seven or more prospective members able to form a union. 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 – restrictions still on the books: 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. Uniformed personnel involved in maintaining security and public order are the main group of government employees who are not allowed to join unions.

Government interference in internal trade union affairs: 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 without 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.

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.

Persons with prior criminal convictions may not hold office or become employees of a union without prior approval of the Minister.

The Act 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 detail in the 2005 Survey.

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 that 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.

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. A certified agreement is legally binding to both the employers and the union. Transfers and layoffs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, although unions have the right to ask for the reasons behind the retrenchment and to negotiate compensation for workers in such cases.

Disputes can be settled by means negotiations through the Ministry of Manpower using the procedures 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. The last time it was invoked was in 2004 when the Minister 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.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

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), which is 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 NTUC secretary general and a deputy secretary general currently serve on the PAP Central Executive Committee. The NTUC secretary general also 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, continuing a practice of upcoming PAP leaders playing an important role in the trade union movement.

Restrictions not applied: Practice suggests that many of the laws are outdated, as in reality many of the potential restrictions on trade union rights 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 nonconfrontational industrial relations, has meant that there have been only two recorded days of strike action since 1978. There were no strikes in 2007.

Migrant Workers: Restrictions on migrant workers' rights to serve as an officer, trustee or staff member of a union (without prior written approval by the Minister) affect a significant percentage of the country's workforce. According to the government Department of Statistics, at the end of 2006 the work force of Singapore was 1,880,800. A government official publicly stated in September 2007 that there were 645,000 foreigners on work permits and 110,000 foreigners on S-passes in the country.

Foreign domestic workers have little opportunity to organise to defend their rights or demand improvements in their conditions of work. A standard contract for domestic workers sets out that employers should provide one to four days leave per month, but Singapore refuses to legislate requirements to stipulate a mandatory number of days off for domestic workers. Polls conducted by NGOs found that only 50% of domestic workers are given any time off by their employers.

However, the NTUC reports that it does advocate for their rights through its Migrant Workers' Forum, and action by the Ministry of Manpower helped 276 domestic workers who were not paid salaries by their employers during the year.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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