Why I champion workers' rights: Halimah Yacob

In a dusty sweatshop in Nepal about 10 years ago, unionist and Member of Parliament Halimah Yacob felt troubled for the workers slaving to make goods for wealthier buyers.

They were much more concerned about whether they would get paid, than the toll exacted on their health and safety by the spartan working conditions, among other things.

Such circumstances and work environments, she said, were what drove her to help develop global employment standards as the workers' vice-chairperson of the standards committee for the International Labour Conference in Geneva.

Sharing stories from her professional and personal life Monday, the Speaker of Parliament known for her work as an advocate for workers, women and minorities sought to encourage and inspire 140 third-year Ngee Ann Polytechnic students to get involved with the community.

The session was part of the polytechnic's Heroes Seminar, featuring role models who have touched lives and made an impact on society. Launched in 2009 by the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, it is a platform for character and citizenship education. This year's theme is Heroes in Crisis and the event runs till Friday. Other speakers include Mr Gerard Ee, a champion of social service issues.

On Monday, Madam Halimah told of how she worked to ensure that retrenched workers from the electronics industry in the 2008 financial crisis would have not just fair retrenchment packages but also the chance to pick up new skills and to find a new job.

She said she joined the labour movement as it was a "natural fit" for her, having come from a poor family. "I used to go to school in a threadbare uniform that was very worn out."

Questions included one from third-year accountancy student Caleb Vinson Ong, 19, on why "he should care" about parliamentary sessions.

She said Parliament is one of the key institutions upholding democracy here and that sessions are in-depth and robust. "I want you to be interested in Parliament... to read all the reports and debates because it is a key institution where Members of Parliament are elected by the people, they are the voice of the people and they voice the people's concerns, needs and aspirations," she said.

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