[Blog 28] The Chief Guru Chronicles 104: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore
Tripartism and social dialogue has always been the building block for the stable industrial relations within our country’s business and political environment. We may fail to admit it but the fact remains that we owe much of our nation’s thriving businesses, growing salaries, and low levels of unemployment to the harmonious three-way cooperation between the government, labour union and employers. This is a striking distinctness in comparison to the labour situation in most parts of the world, especially USA and Europe, where tension between the union and employer organisations persists, and many working days are lost to strike actions annually. While Singaporeans have their best interests preserved as a result of the symbiotic relationship between the ruling party and the labour movement, workers in other parts of the world suffer greatly from the antagonistic nature of their trade unions and the pro-worker policies that bind them. In times of economic disruption, could our success in policy making and strength of representation perhaps be something that many here take for granted?
I was confronted with this paradox firsthand while leading the transition and integration efforts of a luxury hotel in a first world country in Europe years ago. Representing the new owner-operator in the establishment, at the first opportunity, I naturally called for a meeting to be scheduled with the labour union chief, mostly as a formality for a chance to develop some sense of rapport (a practice that is welcomed back home). Much to my surprise and dismay, my request was strongly discouraged by my legal advisor who warned me about the risks of meeting the union representatives independently without having suitable labour consultants present. I then learned that it is a very common practice for both management and union representatives to be accompanied and guided by labour consultant ( aka legal advisor) and union representatives there are frequently dictated by their own self-serving needs and have the tendency to make decisions based on short-term considerations due to the heavily-regulated labour environment. The lack of trust and continuity among the union, the private and public sectors often leads to undesirable employment outcomes that many companies avoid working with unions altogether. This conflict between government, union and employers only winds up in a gridlock with all parties on the losing end. Consequently, I had to be more cautious when it comes to negotiating and mediating agreements with the union as much as I was willing to work with them in good faith. This was to avoid circumstances where I might be accused of interfering with or prohibiting their conditions, however unintentional and genuine my motives may be.
For all its criticism, the tripartism model of labour in Singapore still works effectively and should be celebrated more than criticised by some quarters. However, rather than trying to emulate the tripartism model elsewhere, it is more important to have the humility to be open-minded and not just focus on the ills of societies with different histories and traditions. Managing industrial relations on a global scale requires you to act accordingly to varying idiosyncrasies and practices, especially in places that turn to confrontational collective bargaining instead of the culture of collaboration. Strikes may be alien where we live but it is equally important to be capable of coping with weather changes and economic transformation wherever you are.