By Cai Haoxing
SINGAPORE - The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has always been concerned about stagnating wages at the bottom. But it took a tightening of the availability of cheap foreign workers to make its voice louder, said NTUC president Diana Chia yesterday.
She said that the tightening labour market "made it a lot easier" for unionists to push for improvements in the lot of low-wage workers.
"We've always been proposing, give a fair share to them. But things have not moved just as much as we want to," she said. "Because we had easy access to foreign labour, we've made it easier for employers to say, what's the impetus for me to increase their salary? It's natural for people to behave like that. After all, as an employer, you're profit-driven."
But higher levies and tighter quotas on the supply of foreign workers, together with recent media discussion on low-wage workers, are making employers sit up, she said.
"I think the message is loud and clear in the media. You hear it also from our politicians and the unionists. It is a loud message for them to pay attention."
Ms Chia was speaking to reporters after giving a speech to about 80 members and guests of the Singaporean-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce on Singapore's tripartite system of labour relations. Unions in Singapore eschew a confrontational tack, opting to work with the government and employers to create jobs.
Ms Chia spoke to reporters about the recent buzz triggered by eminent economist Lim Chong Yah's "shock therapy" proposal in April to raise the wages of those earning below $1,500 a month by 50 per cent over three years.
The proposal garnered much media attention, drew strong objections from businesses, economists and government officials, before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that it was not workable.
Mr Lee's speech could be read as moderating expectations that had gone up among employees expecting a pay hike, Ms Chia said.
And while unions want the best for their members, "at the same time, we're also realistic depending on how the company is doing".
This article was first published in The Business Times.