NTUC reaches out to small businesses

PHOTO: NTUC reaches out to small businesses
Above photo is NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say.

SINGAPORE - After successfully working with industry associations and government bodies to improve the lot of workers in sectors such as cleaning and health care, the labour movement wants to apply this targeted approach across all sectors in the economy.

By doing so, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) hopes to convince more companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to get on board the national drive to improve productivity.

Their participation is crucial as Singapore eschews high growth in its workforce and economy, and favours lower workforce growth and sustainable economic growth, said NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say on thursday.

Speaking at the NTUC's annual workplan seminar, Mr Lim, however, did not focus on the labour movement's plans for the coming year, as is usual. Instead, he looked further into the future.

If the workforce grows by an average of 5.7 per cent a year, as it has since 2004, Singapore will have 5 million workers by 2020.

This is not sustainable, he said, and Singapore must instead "transform and grow".

It can let its workforce grow by less than 2 per cent a year but it cannot let economic growth fall that low, he said.

Low growth means a less vibrant economy, more unemployment and stagnant wages, he added.

The goal is to have annual growth of 3 to 4 per cent led by productivity, he told more than 700 union leaders, bosses and government representatives at the seminar.

The rates of growth he suggested for the workforce and economy found favour with most in the audience.

A quick poll of the audience found 86 per cent agreeing that it was "the way to go".

Economic restructuring has been the Government's goal in recent years, with productivity gains seen as key to raising pay.

The NTUC has taken a similar line - for instance, with progressive wage models which help low-wage workers earn more by raising productivity and skills.

But Mr Lim told reporters later that companies are used to adding workers rather than raising productivity.

Although the tighter labour market is changing mindsets, only "a growing minority" of companies are taking measures to improve productivity.

To convince more companies, especially SMEs, to change their ways, the NTUC will reach out to them via tripartite organisations as many are not unionised.

So when bosses approach, say, the Employment and Employability Institute for help in getting workers, they are also introduced to productivity schemes.

The NTUC will also go through industry associations to reach their member companies.

"There's a channel of contact... not on a one-to-one basis, but as tripartite partners," said Mr Lim.

"Although the NTUC's target is to have one in three workers unionised - up from the current one in four - he stressed that its focus on doing it sector by sector is not "a membership recruitment strategy".

Rather, it aims to help both unionised and non-unionised companies in each sector make the move up the productivity ladder.

The president of the Association of SMEs, Mr Chan Chong Beng, agrees that many SMEs "may not have the confidence" to embark on productivity improvements, even if they recognise that the days of ready labour supply are over.

He said the NTUC could make it easier for them to take the first step by, for instance, introducing SMEs to measures with clear short-term benefits.

Alternatively, it could bring small companies together to gain from help schemes.

"Once they start to see the benefits, they'll be addicted," he said.