A trade union is an institutional representative of workers??™ interest that unites the collective voice of individual employees for the enhancement of working conditions of individual or group of workers (Chew & Chew 1995). The biggest trade union in Singapore is the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) (Ng & Warner 1998), and in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) (Lee 1986). Although the trade unions in both countries have some similarities, there are significant differences that led me to disagree with Barr (2000) as I believe that the NTUC is considered a trade union. However I concur with Taylor and Li (2007) that the ACFTU can only be truly considered a trade union only if there are changes.
The Two Unions
The NTUC was set up in 1961 by the non-communists group of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions and has been representing the labour movement in Singapore since 1965 (Chew 1991). The NTUC Currently the NTUC has a total of 60 affiliated unions with a membership of about 540,000 workers (NTUC 2009). Its objective is to contribute to the growth of the economy by cooperating with the government and management to create a peaceful working environment thus attracting investors and creating more jobs (Tan 2007).
The ACFTU was originally formed in 1925 but its role then was as a ???transmission belt??? between the government and the masses and that it was largely doing administrative work rather than representing workers (Zhu & Warner 2000). However, the ACFTU was suspended in 1967 due to the ???Cultural Revolution??™ in China at that time, and it was only re-instated in 1978 (Ng & Warner 1998). Also since then the ACFTU is virtually the only legitimate workers??™ organisation in China (Lee 1986). Currently the ACFTU has at least 1.324 million affiliated unions and a total of more than 169.94 millions members (ACFTU 2007). Its objective is to represent and promote the interest of its members while adapting them to meet state economic objectives (Tubilewicz 2006).
Compare and Contrast
There are some notable similarities between the two unions. One of them is that both the NTUC and ACFTU have very close links with their respective government. In Singapore, the union leader post has always been held by unionists who belong to the People??™s Action Party (PAP), the Singapore??™s government political party (Barr 2000). In China, it is the same thing as the chair of the ACFTU is held by a member of the standing committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which controls the government (Taylor & Li 2007). Also, both unions practice tri-partism operations. In Singapore, NTUC practises tri-partism operations since the 1970s by working together with the government, employers and employees to create a good industrial environment (Chew 1991). In China, the ACFTU started practising tri-partism operations with the help from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the early 1990s (Zhu & Warner 2000). Lastly, both the NTUC and ACFTU union structure are triple-tiered in nature. In Singapore, the NTUC is at the peak, followed by the industry unions then the branch unions and in China, the ACFTU is at the peak, followed by provincial unions and then the local unions (Chew & Chew 1995).
There are also some major differences between the two unions which governs the way they are managed. One of the biggest differences is the roles of the NTUC and ACFTU. The roles of the NTUC are to improve the welfare and social status of workers, to encourage workers to aim for higher productivity and to promote good industrial relations (Tan 2007). Conversely, the China??™s Trade Union Act define the role of ACFTU as ???primarily as a social and welfare organization and only secondarily for organizing and representing workers??™ (Ng & Warner 1998). In addition, the ACFTU is the only legal trade union in China, while although NTUC is the biggest trade union in Singapore, there is other trade unions in Singapore (Chew & Chew 1995). Also, the NTUC gets their funding from members through membership fees (Chew 1991), while the ACFTU gets their funding from the CCP through handouts (Taylor & Li 2007). Another difference between the trade unions in Singapore and China is the criteria where employees need to meet to join a union. In Singapore, under the Trade Union Act, employees at the age of sixteen and above under a contract of service with employers are eligible to join a union (Chew 1991). On the other hand, in China all manual and mental labourers who rely mainly on their salaries for their livelihood will be eligible for union membership (Lee 1986).
Trade Union justification
Barr (2000) stated that the NTUC is not considered a trade union because its ties with the government is too close and that it is as if the government exercises top-down control over the NTUC. He also stated that the NTUC did not do enough for the Malay community as a union. However, I beg to differ. Currently the Malays are able to join the Singapore Armed Forces and the Police Force, and all male Singapore citizens must attend National Service before the age of 21 regardless of race. Therefore, it is not true that the NTUC is discriminating against the Malays and doing nothing for them in Singapore. Besides, to classify the NTUC as not a trade union takes more evidence than that. Meanwhile, regarding the ACFTU, Taylor and Li (2007) said that the ACFTU is not considered a trade union because of three points: (1) its dual role to protect worker interest and national interests placed it in a difficult position, (2) there is no effective electoral system for union office holders and (3) as it is the only legal union in China, workers lack the freedom of association. To find out if what they say is really true, we must first look at the main functions of a trade union. Green(1994) states that the two most important functions of trade unions are collective bargaining and safekeeping jobs. Below are how the NTUC and ACFTU each fares in executing the functions:
The main function of a trade union is collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is an institutionalised procedure between the employers and unions to determine the terms and conditions of employment of the workers concerned (O??™Hagan, Gunnigle & Morley 2005). In Singapore, a tri-partite body called the National Wage Council (NWC) consisting of representatives from the PAP, NTUC and employers??™ association was set up in 1972 to devise a set of wage guidelines annually to the government to be used as the basis for collective bargaining (Chew 1991). Through the NWC, the NTUC has a means of making the voices of all its individual members heard. In China, the ACFTU has been involved in establishing a ???tripartite negotiating system??™ at national level and protecting the economic interests of employees at state level (Clarke & Lee 2003). However, even though considerable changed were introduced, for various political reasons, the ACFTU still serves the interest of the state more than that of the workers (Zheng 2004). One reason could be that unions in China remain subjugated to state dominance and accordingly, the ACFTU representative role cannot go against government policies and priorities (Chen 2003). Another reason could be that as the ACFTU gets their funding from their government, it would be inclined to go along with the government at the expense of the workers (Taylor & Li 2007). Due to these two reasons and maybe others, the ACFTU is unable to represent the workers properly in collective bargaining because the interest of the government will take priority over the interest of the workers. In addition, the last resort for employees to take when bargaining is to take a strike action, which is to completely stop working (Calveley 2005). In Singapore, while unions have the right to strike, they prefer to resolve disputes though negotiations (Tan 2007). However, workers in China do not have the right to strike as the right to do so were removed in the 1982 Constitution, and even now the trade union law in China also did not have such rights (Chan 2001). I feel that for a trade union to really fight for the benefit of its employees, it needs to have all the bargaining chips available when negotiating with companies. Clarke and Lee (2003) concluded that as workers in China are without the freedom of association and without the right to strike, they could be said to not enjoy the right to collective bargaining.
Another crucial function of a trade union is to help keep members in their jobs. It is especially more important now due to the recent economy slowdown. The NTUC has been actively coming out with ideas on how to do that. For example, job-saving plans suggested by the NTUC, such as shorter work weeks and temporary lay offs, helped minimised job losses during the recent economic downturn (Chuang 2009). In addition, to help older workers to remain employed, the NTUC has a team that has been engaging the companies to advise them on the merits of employing such workers (Chew 2009). However, in the management-labour relations in China, there is no real ???partnership??? between management and the ACFTU (Fang 2004). During the economy downturn, it will be a challenge for the ACFTU to safeguard the jobs of its employees because there will be not much cooperation between management and the ACFTU to do something for the employees. Due to globalisation and the emergence of new technologies, I feel that one of the best ways to safeguard employee??™s jobs is to increase the employability of the employees. For example, NTUC has done this by setting up training centre called NTUC learning Hub (LHUB) since 1982 (Tan 2007). The LHUB has trained 562,000 individual so far and according to Lim Swee Say, secretary-general of the NTUC, training can be used for personal development and to increase the employability of the employees (Teh 2010). Meanwhile to increase employability, the ACFTU has also set up 2,350 job training centres, which trained 7.918 million people whom most are laid-off workers so as to help them get employed again (ACFTU 2007). Therefore it can be seen that both the NTUC and ACFTU are doing their best to safeguard employees??™ jobs. However, even though the ACFTU is making huge efforts to safeguard the jobs for the employees, it is subject to the direction of the government (Warner 2005). What it means is that the ACFTU cannot fully commit to the task of safeguarding the workers??™ jobs.
From the two points above, we can see that Barr is not entirely correct. Although it is true that the NTUC and the PAP shares a very close relationship, the close co-operation between the NTUC and the PAP has only enhanced the industrial relations in Singapore. For example, the government introduced the $4.5 billion Jobs Credit Scheme to preserve jobs and with the help of the NTUC job saving measures, they managed to keep the unemployment rate in Singapore lower compared to global rates (Chuang 2009). Furthermore, besides what Taylor and Li pointed out, we can now see the failings of the ACFTU more clearly. I feel that even though there are some merits to the ACFTU, the ACFTU can only be truly considered a trade union if it starts to work more for the interest of the employees than the government. Lillywhite (2007, p.691) suggested that ???trade union reform is needed to ensure that representatives are democratically elected, professional and represent the workers??™ concerns??™.
I am disagreeing with Barr as even though the NTUC has very close ties with the PAP, it still manages to fulfill the main functions of a trade union. However I have to agree with Taylor and Li that the ACFTU cannot be considered one. Although there are similarities between the two, there is one crucial difference that prevented the ACFTU from being a trade union. The deciding factor was that the ACFTU has failed in trying to juggle its dual roles and ended up straying away from the most important function of a trade union, which is to represent its workers. On the contrary, the NTUC manages to perform its roles and is doing much more that was asked of it. There will still be many critics on how both unions are too closely related to the government, but ultimately, what matters most is whether the unions are able to represent the workers in a fair and just manner.