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New labour chief's goal: good jobs, good pay

NTUC to tie up with professional bodies to accredit skills of PMETs to help boost their prospects

Mr Chan holding a media session with journalists at NTUC Centre to share his views on the labour movement and other worker-related issues.


"I DON'T aim to be a champion but if I do the correct things, being the champion is inevitable," said newly appointed labour chief Chan Chun Sing.

The words, however, are not his - he once heard someone else say them. He thinks it was former Singapore swimming champion Ang Peng Siong, but he isn't sure.

It doesn't matter. Mr Chan cited the quote because he believes in it and said he has always abided by it in his actions.

In his new job as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, which has over 800,000 members, this means making sure workers continue to have good jobs and good pay.

In seeking to keep workers in good jobs with good pay, the former army chief is not talking about just the rank-and-file workers who traditionally made up the bulk of union membership. He also includes professionals, managers, executives and technicians. These PMETs constitute over half of Singapore's 3.5 million-strong workforce.

In fact, Mr Chan specifically wants to modify and extend the compulsory wage ladders introduced under the Progressive Wage Model for low-wage workers to PMETs. For the latter, it will be in the form of skill ladders to boost their job prospects.

"The professional sector also needs the same concept applied in a different way," he said in an hour-long media interview.

The new labour leader said that to get more firms to buy into this, NTUC will tie up with professional bodies to accredit the skills of PMETs so that their skills will be recognised by different employers.

If all workers can secure good jobs with good pay to look after their families, Mr Chan, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, said that that will free up more state resources to help needy Singaporeans who can't work - and he has met a fair number of them in his last job as Minister for Social and Family Development.

Singapore's tight labour market may appear to make his new job easy, but in truth Mr Chan may face more challenges than his predecessor Lim Swee Say, who is now the Minister for Manpower.

The global economy is growing more slowly while the competition for markets and investments is much tougher. At home, Singapore's productivity growth is still low and in need of a bigger push. Companies, meanwhile, are struggling with business restructuring in the face of more fickle and demanding customers, fast-changing technology and over-crowded industries.

A more direct challenge Mr Chan has to deal with is the fact that many jobs are becoming obsolete fast because of shorter product cycles and rapid automation.

He noted that when his mother was working - he was raised by a single parent - jobs outlived a worker's working lifespan; the opposite is true these days.

While new industries are also mushrooming and creating jobs, they require new and higher-level skills which are not produced quickly enough.

So compulsory education has given way to continuing education and training to upgrade and keep workers' skills current, Mr Chan said. And it is NTUC's business to track the job market and work with the government and employers to keep such education and training going.

Since joining the NTUC in January, Mr Chan has been visiting employers and unions daily to find out more about these changes and how to cope with them.

The visits were also intended to learn about the concerns and challenges facing companies and unions and to find ways for the two and the government - the tripartite partners - to cooperate better in tackling them.

"I have no grand plans but only to work together with everyone," Mr Chan said.

In particular, he is keen to get the government, employers and unions to deepen their teamwork, extending it from the national to sectoral level, to raise productivity and sharpen Singapore's competitive edge.

He understands that good jobs and good pay for the long haul come from strong productivity growth and business investments. And businesses will only put their money in Singapore if it is business-friendly and competitive.

Mr Chan said that companies based here don't have to compete on cheap labour in the global market. They can instead offer quality, creativity and trust to win business.

He pointed out that Singapore's unique strength lies in the good relationship between the government, employers and unions which provides stability and allows businesses to plan for the long term

While this tripartism, as it is known, has been forged over many years, Mr Chan cautioned against "resting on our laurels". Singapore must continue to build on it and push tripartite cooperation down from the top to the ground level, he said.

And NTUC under him will remain a champion of tripartism because it is good for business which will create goods with good pay for workers.