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Speech at May Day Dinner 2014

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower, Grand Ballroom, Orchid Country Club

Sister Diana Chia, President, NTUC

Brother Lim Swee Say, Secretary-General, NTUC

Brother John De Payva, President Emeritus, NTUC

Brother Lim Boon Heng, Immediate Past Secretary-General, NTUC

Brother Goh Chok Tong, Emeritus Senior Minister

Brother Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

Brother Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Health and Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation

Sister Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office

Brother Stephen Lee, President, SNEF
NTUC Central Committee Members
Distinguished Guests
Sisters and Brothers of the Labour Movement,

  1. Good evening. It is always a privilege to be invited to this event and certainly an even greater honour to be able to address all of you here at our May Day Dinner.

    Celebrating Our People
  2. May Day is a special day where we recognise and celebrate our workers and their contributions. In fact, this is our day because many of us work and in our own small ways, make a difference to our families and loved ones, our colleagues, our companies and also to our community at large. For us in Singapore, it is also an opportunity for us to recognise the contributions of the labour movement within the tripartite partnership that is so vitally important for us.
  3. Our labour movement is an integral part of this partnership because you have chosen to focus on building mutual trust and respect while always seeking to make lives better for all our people. You have laid the foundations, upon which much of what we have is built on. Singapore is doing well because we have a stable workforce and industrial harmony. Our people are skilled and motivated. And our Unions play an active role in keeping our companies and economy competitive.
  4. Where are we today as a result of all this? Well, our economy continues to be healthy. Last year, we created many new and good jobs, especially for Singaporeans. Our citizen unemployment rate at 2.9% is among the lowest in the world. Many countries continue to be mired in the twin problems of growth, or the lack of growth, and the concurrent impact on high unemployment, especially for the youths and older workers. But low as it may be, I will say this again. Low unemployment does not mean no unemployment. Behind every percentage point of the unemployed are individuals and their families who are affected not just financially, but also emotionally. This is why we must continue to make sure that opportunities are created, so that we keep unemployment as low as we can. This is also why we must continue to ensure that our people are equipped as best as possible to find jobs. We also do what we can to facilitate a match between workers and companies.

    People as our Focus
  5. It is quite clear. Singaporeans are and must be at the heart of everything that we do. Ultimately, we all want Singapore to continue to be strong and prosper as a nation, and for our citizens to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labour. We must provide for a range of opportunities and pathways, so that individuals can pursue their aspirations and dreams. Some will prefer a slower pace of life, while others prefer something dynamic. What is constant is the need for good jobs, good workplaces and fair wages. These would allow Singaporeans to pursue what matters to them in life and to take care of their families. Only you can fulfil your aspirations, but we can do our best to support you in the process.

    Maintaining a Vibrant and Competitive Economy
  6. How do we do this? We need to ensure that our economy remains vibrant and our businesses competitive, as this is the basis for good jobs for Singaporeans. This is why we need to be a business-friendly environment that can attract good foreign investments and skilled manpower which complements our workforce.
  7. Sustaining our competitiveness is not without challenges. Others are racing ahead as we speak. While we may be at a different stage of development and cannot pursue the same strategies, we do need to figure out how we should stay ahead in our own way, so that good opportunities can continue to be created here for our people. At home, our businesses are grappling with the challenge of slowing manpower growth. Our resident workforce is aging, and the tightening of foreign manpower inflows will also have an impact on the profile of our workforce. We have to navigate this shift carefully, because if we tighten our foreign workforce too much or too quickly, even quality businesses will find it hard to operate. While it may seem a popular move that protects our own people, it will ultimately reduce the jobs and opportunities for the very Singaporeans we are looking out for.

    Restructuring for Our Future
  8. To sustain our growth, we are restructuring our economy and working to raise our productivity. We cannot compete as a low cost, low productivity base, or even worse, to be high cost and low productivity. We are higher cost, but must be a high productivity economy. This is the only way for us to stay relevant. It is imperative that our businesses innovate, transform themselves and move up the value chain. They have to adapt quickly and learn to operate efficiently with less manpower. The government will spare no effort to help businesses restructure their processes and improve their productivity.
  9. Singapore’s restructuring efforts and productivity drive will be for the long haul. Unfortunately, it will not be painless; less competitive firms will fold, and some workers will need to move on to other jobs. Some of these are in fact already happening today. These are structural challenges that we will need to continually manage and overcome.
  10. In this respect, our Continuing Education and Training (CET) system will play an important role in increasing the resilience of our workforce in this rapidly changing environment. Through NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (or e2i), the Labour Movement has been steadfast in helping workers, both young and old, PMEs and rank and file workers, acquire new skills to be ready for future challenges. Take fresh graduate, Mei Shi, for example. She was initially having difficulty landing a job in the science and research domain despite sending out many resumes and attending many interviews. After attending e2i’s executive workshop, she learned to refine her resume and better present herself during interviews. She has since been offered and started work in a research position.
  11. For Singaporeans who are willing to embrace lifelong learning, the government will provide them with all the support they need to upgrade and re-skill, so that they can look forward to better jobs and a better life.

    Strong Tripartism forms the Bedrock of Our Success
  12. Strong tripartism and harmonious industrial relations have been the bedrock of our success. This will be even more important going forward as we progress in our restructuring journey. Sometimes, there will be tensions when we have differences in views and opinions. But as long as we share a “win-win” mindset and stand guided by our common conviction of creating a better future for Singapore, I know that we can succeed.
  13. I would like to talk about one such institution which the tripartite partners have introduced. The Tripartite Mediation Framework (TMF) was introduced in 2011 to provide an avenue for managers and executives who are union members in non-unionised companies and who earn up to $4,500 a month, to seek remedy for their employment disputes through a tripartite mediation process. Over the past three years, the tripartite partners have been able to successfully resolve many workplace disputes surfaced through the TMF.
  14. In particular, the NTUC has been requesting that we further strengthen this new mechanism as a sustainable way to deal with workplace disputes and grievances. I fully support this. The partners are considering widening the coverage of the TMF, such as extending to rank and file workers and removing the $4,500 salary cap for managers and executives, and allowing more PMEs other than those with substantial managerial responsibilities, to make use of the TMF to resolve their workplace-related disputes. I understand that they are also considering expanding the already substantive list of issues that can heard through the TMF, such as issues relating to salary payment, breach of employment contracts and payment of retrenchment benefits. MOM will announce the details when the review of the TMF is completed. The expanded scope of TMF, when implemented, will strengthen the employment dispute resolution landscape in Singapore. (Refer to Annex A for the Factsheet on TMF.)

    Building a Fair and Inclusive Society
  15. We should also aspire to build a fair and inclusive society where every Singaporean is given the opportunity to pursue their dreams. This is the spirit behind the Fair Consideration Framework, which we will introduce in August this year. Every Singaporean must be able to compete fairly and squarely with others for jobs opportunities on a level playing field. It is important that we continue to uphold our system of meritocracy which has served us well for many generations.

    Uplift Low-Wage Workers
  16. We are very mindful that there will be some Singaporeans who find themselves falling behind. We have thus placed special emphasis on uplifting our low-wage workers as we strive to build a more inclusive society. I would like to commend the labour movement for its efforts in raising the wages of Singaporeans in general and in particular of lower-wage workers through encouraging productivity improvements. This is the only way that wage growth can be sustainable in the long run.
  17. Through the Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) administered by e2i, low-wage workers benefit from companies’ productivity gains through higher wages. As at December 2013, the IGP has already committed to help 63,600 workers from about 650 companies, where local low-wage workers are expected to receive wage increases of about 15%.
  18. Another important initiative spearheaded by the NTUC is the Progressive Wage Model or PWM that has garnered strong support and is being aggressively promoted by the tripartite partners. The PWM puts in place clear wage-skill and career progression pathways for workers, allowing them to earn wages that are commensurate with their skills, productivity and responsibilities.
  19. The PWM is now our unique tripartite approach for specific sectors that suffer from prevalent cheap-sourcing coupled with limited bargaining power on the part of the workers. For such sectors, the government will legislate the tripartite-negotiated PWM. We have started with the cleaning sector this year and will take a similar approach in the security sector. A new tripartite cluster will also study the feasibility of a PWM in the landscaping sector. This very targeted form of wage intervention is expected to benefit more than 80,000 local low-wage workers.
  20. Beyond the mandatory PWMs developed at the tripartite level, NTUC also works directly with employers in other sectors to develop progressive wage models and career progression pathways for their workers. Singapore Power is one such company which has successfully implemented a progressive salary system for its rank and file employees. This is complemented by a performance appraisal system that recognises and rewards employees’ job output and competencies. Today, a Technical Officer in Singapore Power can progress to become an engineer if he has shown the necessary competence and undergone relevant training, without possessing an engineering degree.

    A Better Tomorrow
  21. Next year, we will be celebrating Singapore’s 50th Anniversary, which is an important milestone for a relatively young country like ours. Tripartism has played an important part in the story of our social and economic progress. As long as we keep working together as one, I am confident that we will continue to make Singapore a land of opportunities, a place that we will all proudly call our home.
  22. This evening, 105 employers, union and government leaders will be honoured for their outstanding contributions to the labour movement for strong tripartite relations. My congratulations to all the recipients, and in particular DPM Teo Chee Hean and Minister Gan Kim Yong for receiving the most distinguished medal of honour. Their strong leadership and staunch support for tripartism will inspire many more of us to follow their footsteps to create a better tomorrow for all Singaporeans.
  23. On that note, I wish you and wish all of us, a happy May Day! Thank you.

Annex A - Factsheet On Proposed Enhancements To The Tripartite Mediation Framework (TMF)