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Opening Remarks at ITUC AP 22nd Regional General Council

Dr Tan See Leng, Minister for Manpower, YWCA Fort Canning Hotel

Brother Felix Anthony, 
President, ITUC-Asia Pacific

Brother Mamadou Diallo, 
Deputy General Secretary, ITUC 

Brother Shoya Yoshida,
General Secretary, ITUC-Asia Pacific

Sister Maria Helena André, 
Director of the Bureau for Workers’ Activities 

Sister Mary Liew, 
President, Singapore NTUC 

Dear sisters and brothers from the Asia-Pacific labour movement 

A very good morning to all of you and welcome to Singapore.  

2. I am honoured to have the opportunity to say a few words at the International Trade Union Confederation Regional Organisation for Asia and Pacific (ITUC-AP) 22nd Regional General Council (RGC). After two years of virtual meetings and safe distancing measures, it is really great to be able to meet everyone in person. 

Tripartism and the Unions as a Strategic Partner During the Pandemic 

3. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore was able to address many challenging workplace and workforce issues that arose. I believe this is due to our unique tripartite model, and the strong partnership that our tripartite partners have built over the decades. 

4. Let me explain. In Singapore, tripartism refers to the way the Government, labour movement and employers work together to drive Singapore’s development. While we may have differing interests from time to time, we recognise that this  is not a zero-sum game. Instead, we learn over the years to accommodate and find common ground that result in win-win solutions, for workers, for businesses, and ultimately, for the benefit of our country Singapore, and all Singaporeans. In the process, over the years, we built closer relationships with one another, we strengthen trust, and we move forward together in alignment. 

5. This has helped us overcome one crisis after another - the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. In each crisis, brothers and sisters, the tripartite partners came together and shared the pain by cutting costs to save jobs, so that we don’t have to cut jobs to save costs. The Government steps in with further support. When the economy recovers, employers remember the sacrifices that our workers have made, and they restore wages promptly, with those who are doing well paying out good bonuses. By keeping our workers employed through downturns, we are better prepared to take advantage of the upturn. Both workers and businesses prosper, and the trust between tripartite partners is strengthened with each successive challenge we overcome together.

6. Take for example the COVID-19 pandemic. When it first hit our shores like a storm, businesses were concerned about their viability, and workers were equally, if not more concerned about losing their livelihoods. On our part, the Government was concerned about the possibility of large-scale retrenchments and unemployment. In the face of these concerns, the tripartite partners put together a range of measures to save businesses and jobs. For instance, we reacted quickly by updating the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment in March 2020 to provide clearer guidance to employers on measures to preserve jobs. Such measures included implementing a Flexible Work Schedule whereby employers reduce working hours if needed and “timebank” unused working hours, so that it can be used to offset increases in working hours in the future. This enables employers to optimise the use of manpower when their business goes through peaks and troughs, while workers are assured of a stable job and a stable monthly income. 

7. The strength of tripartism is revealed not only through charting response plans and strategies, but also in terms of the close coordination on the ground to implement these measures effectively. The tripartite partners worked hand in glove on the ground, on safe management measures, managing responsible retrenchments, helping workers who were affected to upskill and find new jobs, and equipping companies to rebound from adversities. Through these challenging times when the future seemed uncertain, what kept us going was our shared purpose to improve our workers’ lives and ensure that Singapore, as a country emerges stronger from the crisis. 

Strategic Relationship Between NTUC and ITUC-AP

8. Today, even as countries transit out of the pandemic and try to rejuvenate their economies, labour markets face many challenges ahead. Even before the pandemic, structural shifts were already taking place in the global economy. For example, the disruption caused by rapid technological advancements was further accelerated by the pandemic and is now fundamentally reshaping jobs. The skills of today may not be a good fit for the jobs of tomorrow. And we may well be seeing the tail-end of a favourable period of low-inflation and strong growth.

9. The Government, together with our tripartite partners, acknowledge that it is not possible for us to protect every job. 
But we can, and must, protect every single worker, and we do so by equipping them with the capabilities to upskill themselves, so that they can take on new jobs and create new opportunities for themselves.  A strong NTUC, led by Sister Mary, is committed to represent, serve, and advance the well-being of workers in Singapore, will enable us to continue to work together with employers to achieve this and create mutually beneficial solutions. 

10. NTUC also works closely with ITUC-Asia Pacific to advance the cause of workers in the Asia-Pacific region through sharing of best practices and where possible, supporting regional programmes. We are very happy to see such strong collaboration between ITUC-AP and NTUC, as it facilitates the uplifting of Singapore’s labour standards through learning and adapting best practices from the region. 

11. There is economic uncertainty ahead of us, brothers and sisters, but there are also opportunities for growth in the region to be tapped on if we, as the Government, employers, and workers, work closely together to find and forge a path forward. In this regard, we appreciate ITUC Asia Pacific’s continued presence in Singapore, and your efforts to work with regional partners such as the NTUC to strive for sustainable and resilient growth that benefits all workers. With close partnership between tripartite partners, I am confident we will weather through together and see great progress over this decade.

12. Let me end on this upbeat note and wish all participants a fruitful Regional General Council. I also look forward to meeting you again during the upcoming 17th International Labour Organization Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting, which will be held in Singapore in December.