By Seah Chiang Nee
Who is ultimately responsible for protecting the rights and interests of Singapore's 2.5 million workers — the Manpower Ministry or the city's only trade union body?
A cynical reply could be: No difference, since they are like different arms of the same government.
It is led by a cabinet minister attached to the Prime Minister's office.
With its no-confrontation strategy, NTUC has kept Singapore away from strikes and industrial unrest for decades.
Today the arrival of a million foreign workers and a changing political scenario are creating a new labour environment for the unions.
Some observers are questioning how long this formula of government control of unions and workers — which had worked well in the past — can continue to keep the peace.
The workforce has now exceeded three million, with a third being foreign workers who came with their own practices and values. Their presence has created a large impact on locals, including NTUC members.
It has directly and indirectly caused a host of new conflicts that are not within easy solution for both ministry and NTUC, with so much preoccupation given to economic growth.
It is like a second evolution for NTUC that requires a review of its role to be able to truly represent all Singaporean workers.
The first was caused by the end of the industrial era in Singapore, which hit NTUC hard.
It eradicated most of the large factories that hired thousands of workers who provided the backbone of its strength.
The new service companies that followed are employing much smaller staff that are harder to unionise. The American unions had declined for the same reason.
The fall in membership took NTUC years — and many social attractions and incentives — to rebuild. Added to it was the workers' belief that joining a government-related union had limited use.
Today, a new situation is in place with the presence of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. It is confronting the NTUC with a different sort of problem.
Its current role is restricted by the fact that it represents only 28% of the workforce, to which it is beholden to fight for.
The other 72% of Singapore workers have no union representation and practically have to depend on the Manpower Ministry — or the goodness of their employers — when they need help.
How does the mass intake of "cheaply paid" overseas workers contribute to labour uncertainties here?
Answer: By their easy availability, foreigners have made it easier for exploitative bosses to sack Singaporeans on the flimsiest of excuses, knowing that there are lower-cost alternatives.
When such cases happen, the NTUC finds itself caught in the middle between unhappy workers and employers who usually get away with it.
"Some employers are taking advantage of the situation to act unfairly against Singaporean workers," said a union official.
Last week, for example, a Singaporean national serviceman was reportedly sacked on a month's notice by his company one day before he was due to report for reservist training.
He wrote that he complained to the Manpower Ministry, which allegedly told him that it could not do anything since the company had already given him a month's notice.
On the same day, there was another case. A woman worker who confirmed her pregnancy was pressured by her foreign manager to resign from her job.
(Both complaints are occasionally aired. Some managers avoid having their workers spend time on reservist duties or pregnant ones given natal leave by hiring foreigners.)
By far, the worst problem in Singapore's new environment is caused by foreign managers who hire or promote their own nationalities over Singaporeans despite government warning.
The Minister of State for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin last year announced new guidelines against discriminatory practices against Singaporeans, including job advertisements indicating a preference for foreigners.
In the first nine months of last year, there were 51 such cases of unfair treatment.
His ministry, Tan warned, would act against employers who refused to stop discrimination. Despite this, the Singaporean worker is still short-shifted with no action from the unions.
On the other side of the coin are cases of local firms exploiting foreign workers by under-paying or over-working them — even refusing to pay their wages.
As Singapore progresses from Third to First World, some of its old institutions like NTUC may find themselves needing to reform to meet new challenges.
NTUC was formed in 1961 with a political objective — defeating its leftist rival, SATU or Singapore Association of Trade Unions.
After it won, the Congress maintained its political role of keeping opposition parties from forming trade unions. For that it has to attract as many workers as possible into its fold.
In the past 51 years, NTUC has spoken for workers in tripartite (employer-union-government) negotiations on disputes and pay increases, as well as run a vast business empire.
It also conducts mediation and research and plays a special role in helping senior workers re-employed.
But Singapore has changed; today's labour needs far exceed this role.
The PAP's political leaders are pragmatic enough to say that it may be voted out of power one day — and that none of its policies are beyond change by future generations.
"Nothing is cast in stone," former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, which means everything in life changes.
If that is so, shouldn't Singapore's trade unions sever relationship with political parties?
A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 22 July 2012.