Comment: Tripartism is the bedrock of an inclusive & progressive society in S’pore


By Chee Hong Tat, Deputy Secretary-General of NTUC & Zaqy Mohamad, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Manpower

The Singapore success story cannot be told without mentioning the tripartite relationship between employers, trade unions and the government.

It is the perfect cup of kopi that gets the balance of coffee blend, condensed milk and water just right; the kaya toast with the right amount of kaya and butter spread across perfectly toasted bread.

It’s no understatement to say that tripartism is the bedrock of an inclusive and progressive society in Singapore.

That said, while most people can grasp and understand tripartism, they may not fully appreciate its significance in building consensus as we develop a world-class workforce and economy, balancing the needs of the industry, while ensuring that our workers continue to progress, backed by the union and fair and inclusive labour policies.

More Singaporeans today have prospered along with our economic growth story. Thus, it’s easy to take tripartism for granted, as all parties seem collaborative and collegial. This is different from the situation in many other countries which adopt a more antagonistic method but they often could not achieve similar outcomes.

In Singapore, differences and disputes get settled amicably precisely because of the deliberate and collaborative nature between the three parties. After all, everyone will be on the losing side if disputes spill over and turn into strikes or even riots: wages stagnate, inequality widens, businesses and workers suffer – especially if both sides cannot come to consensus. Things worsen, if there is no trust between government, unions and employers. 

If we allow this to happen, we will not be the inclusive and cohesive society that the PAP government envisioned. And not one that is likely to provide a positive outcome for our workers or our companies.

To build a balanced ecosystem – just like that perfect cup of kopi – it is in Singapore and Singaporeans’ best interest to have a tripartism model comprising a caring labour movement, a responsible government and supportive employers.

Caring labour movement

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has come a long way since its beginning in 1961.

Under its care are 58 affiliated unions, seven affiliated associations, 12 social enterprises, six related organisations and over 1 million members and is on track to hit 1.5 million members by 2030.

As Labour Chief Ng Chee Meng said in a media briefing outlining the labour movement’s plans for 2022, NTUC is also responsible for the livelihood of older workers, PMEs, self-employed, youth and women.

A significant group of workers that the tripartite movement is paying more attention to is the lower-wage workers and was also highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2021 National Day Rally speech.

Lower-wage workers have lower job security and are always the hardest hit during periods of disruption and uncertainty.  Added to this, they typically have less savings to tide over hard times.

That is why the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) has been extended to the waste management sector earlier than planned.

And this is also why the PWM will be extended to in-house cleaners, security officers, landscape workers, as well as administrators and drivers across ALL sectors. More will be done for lower-wage workers as retail and food services sectors will soon enjoy PWM, which will improve their wages and also their training and growth opportunities.

We are also heartened by the progress made by the tripartite movement to see strong wage growth expected with the renewed PWMs for the security, landscape, cleaning, and lift & escalators sectors. For example, entry-level cleaners can expect to earn at least S$2,400 by 2028, almost double of their salaries in 2021. Likewise, entry-level security workers will see a more than double increase of their salaries, earning at least S$3,500 by 2028. These demonstrate our tripartite commitment to improve the wage outcomes of workers, which set the tone for other PWMs to come.

On this front, we are heartened to see many supportive employers who are willing to pay lower-wage workers more and how most are cooperative and support our goals to build a strong Singaporean core.

By 2023, our Progressive Wage moves, including Workfare, PWM, Local Qualifying Salary and PW Mark, will cover up to 266,000 or 94 per cent of all full-time lower-wage workers.

Our approach to Progressive Wages improves the wages and work prospects of lower wage workers, without increasing disemployment risks.

Responsible government

On the Government’s front, the newly created Progressive Wage Credit Scheme (PWCS) will help employers cope with cost increases, so as to bolster the adoption of Progressive Wages.

The scheme, announced at Budget 2022, provides wage support for employers to raise wages of lower-wage workers and adjust to the Progressive Wage Model requirements. The PWCS will provide support of up to 50 per cent of wage increases for lower wage workers, to encourage stronger adoption by businesses despite economic headwinds, while it helps to cushion the impact of the wage increases to consumers.

Budget 2022 also announced the S$500 million Jobs and Business Support Package that will ensure workers from struggling industries such as retail, food and beverages and tourism stay employed.

To further support our lower-wage workers, Workfare will also be enhanced from Jan 2023. 

  • Workfare Income Supplement’s qualifying income cap will be raised from S$2,300 to S$2,500 per month.
  • Workers (aged 35 to 44) will receive a maximum annual payout of S$3,000; those aged 45 to 59 will receive a maximum annual payout of S$3,600; those aged 60 and above will receive a maximum annual payout of S$4,200.
  • Workfare will be extended to younger workers (30 to 34) with a maximum annual payout of S$2,100, helping them set up families and save early for retirement.
  • People with disabilities will also get a maximum annual payout of S$4,200, regardless of age.
  • Eligible part-time workers, including those earning below $500 per month and receiving ComCare, will receive Workfare. 

Workfare tops up the workers’ CPF accounts, preparing them for retirement and also pays out cash to supplement their incomes. In totality, Workfare top ups account for an additional 30 per cent of a worker’s monthly income.

15 years on, almost a million workers have benefitted from over S$8.6 billion dollars in Workfare payouts. In the next five years, the Government will strengthen its commitment and allocate $9 billion on Workfare and PWCS in support of our lower-wage workers.

Tripartism, at its best, is instrumental in building an inclusive society

From the instances above, one can see how tripartism has enabled us to look after ALL workers from all layers of our labour segments.

  • Lower-wage workers continue to experience real wage and career growth; 
  • Persons with disabilities are able to work and make meaningful contributions in an inclusive society; 
  • PMETs are protected through the strengthening of labour protections; and 
  • Older workers can continue to work if they wish to, and receive support from the government, unions and employers. 

These are a reflection of the Party’s values of a fair and just society: that no one gets left behind and opportunities are available for all.

We will continue to fight for our workers to be given fair and dignfied treatment, and to provide them with better jobs, higher wages and brighter futures.  

Here’s to an inclusive and progressive Singapore.

Cover photo credit: SMRT Facebook.