The Global State of Workers' Rights - Singapore


Worker and union rights are governed mainly by the Employment Act, the Trade Unions Act, and the Industrial Relations Act. There are some restrictions on the right to establish trade unions. The National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) encompasses 63 unions – the vast majority of unions in Singapore – and nearly 470,000 workers. Since its founding, it has had a close symbiotic relationship with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). The NTUC provides legal protection, welfare assistance, and training to its members, and even operates a cooperative supermarket chain. The government encourages workers to be part of the NTUC structure, and indeed the International Labour Organization reports that Singapore is one the few countries where the percentage of unionized workers has increased in recent years.

Because of its size and political influence, collective-bargaining power lies almost exclusively with the NTUC. Trade unions and nonmanagerial workers may technically participate in strikes if they obtain a majority secret-ballot vote in favor of the action. However, strikes are not common in Singapore; the last sanctioned strike took place in 1986. Unsanctioned strikes, even when peaceful, are considered illegal.

The treatment of migrant workers, especially those employed in households, has been problematic. Singapore hosts an estimated 160,000 migrant household workers, mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. Human Right Watch has noted that many of them face long working hours, no rest days, low wages, and effective confinement to the employer's home. Cases of household workers being abused have been frequently reported. The law stipulates harsh punishment for employers who abuse their foreign workers. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act requires the employer to ensure that the worker is not ill-treated, exploited, willfully neglected, or endangered. Nevertheless, migrant household workers do not enjoy the full protection of the law.

This 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.