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Why amend Act? Alpa-S saga shows workers' interests not protected

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Why amend Act? Alpa-S saga shows workers' interests not protected

Old 21st Apr 2004, 16:46
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Singapore Straits Times APRIL 21, 2004 WED

Why amend Act? Alpa-S saga shows workers' interests not protected

THE amendment to the Trade Unions Act was sparked off by the state of affairs at the Air Line Pilots' Association Singapore (Alpa-S), where protracted negotiations led to soured ties with the management of Singapore Airlines.

Acting Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday explained the rationale for the change that effectively affects only Alpa-S.

It removes the need for its elected leaders to seek members' approval before concluding collective agreements (CA) or settling disputes with management.

Alpa-S, which represents about 1,600 pilots, introduced this clause into its constitution in 1999, when it was restructuring itself to accommodate members from SIA subsidiary SilkAir.

'Ostensibly, through this check mechanism, members could by their approval affirm that their interest had been protected and endorse the leadership of the negotiating team,' Dr Ng told the House.

'But in practice, members' interests had not been safeguarded as thereafter, protracted and futile negotiations worsened relations between the union and management, to the detriment of all.'

In some instances, negotiating positions had progressively hardened, resulting in deadlocks as the executive council sought ratification from members.

He highlighted the example of how in 2001, a collective agreement between Alpa-S and SIA, which took 27 months to conclude, was thrown out by Alpa-S members at a meeting to ratify the deal.

The case was eventually referred to the Industrial Arbitration Court and settled out of court.

'Both management and union must share blame for this unproductive exercise, but the point is that the interests of both union members and the company suffered from these cycles of acrimony aggravated by the ratification clause,' he said.

More recently, a wage cut deal proposed by SIA management in the wake of Sars was ratified by Alpa-S members. However, 55 per cent of members later voted out the president and his negotiating team.

'Again, the ratification provision did not serve its original purpose of securing a mandate for the exco from union members.

'Members could, even after ratifying an agreement, change their minds and their leaders subsequently,' Dr Ng said.

Yesterday, Alpa-S president Mok Hin Choon said the amendment will obviously change the way things are done.

For one thing, union members will have to be more careful in selecting their representatives who will have full authority to negotiate and agree to terms on their behalf.

Leaders will also have to be doubly careful in negotiations with management, making sure they cover all the bases.

Previously, they would have been able to 'look members in the eye and say: 'Look, guys, you cleared it' ', as the membership had the final say on an agreement.

That is now no longer an option, said Capt Mok, who also headed Alpa-S when it negotiated the 2001 collective agreement but stepped down shortly afterwards. -- Rebecca Lee

Singapore Straits Times 21 April 2004

Fiery debate contrasts \'helicopter\' views and ground-level arguments
By Chua Mui Hoong

FIREWORKS erupted in Parliament shortly after 3pm yesterday.

Acting Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen had just moved an amendment to the Trade Unions Act to remove the right of workers to require union leaders to go back to them for approval before signing collective agreements.

In practice, only Alpa-S, the union of airline pilots, requires union leaders to ratify decisions with members. But its chequered history showed that the clause had contributed to acrimonious relations with management, and that provision should be stopped, argued Dr Ng.

Opposition MP Low Thia Khiang sprang to his feet to denounce the amendment for curtailing workers\' right to hold union leaders accountable for decisions.

\'This is a typical response of the PAP Government: If they cannot control you or are unable to persuade you to act according to their wishes, they will outlaw you or cripple you by legislation. A legitimate act could become a criminal act overnight. A robust organisation could become subdued and submissive. Welcome to Singapore.\'

He spoke with passion. Front bench ministers looked at him, stony-faced, during his five-minute oratory.

Dr Ng, never one to mince his words, dismissed Mr Low\'s \'diatribe\'. The amendment did not remove the right of workers to bargain collectively, organise, seek recourse for grievances or remove leaders. Rising union membership here, which bucked the worldwide trend of declining numbers, showed workers here trusted union leaders, and not \'glib remarks\' or \'chest-thumping\' of opposition politicians, he said.

Three other MPs spoke on that Bill, sparking the liveliest debate of the two-hour sitting.

Non-Constituency MP Steve Chia opposed it on the grounds that it restricted workers\' rights.

Nominated MP Nithiah Nandan and Jurong GRC MP Halimah Yacob, both union leaders who have spent years working on collective agreements, supported the amendment, with some concerns.

From the press gallery, it seemed at times that the debate was taking place on two planes.

The two labour MPs were talking from the ground up, offering a perspective of labour relations as practised in companies. They don\'t go much for grand-standing positions or rhetoric. So, for example, the scepticism of Mr Nithiah to a Code of Industrial Relations which the ministry had worked out. \'This is just a piece of document; you just sign, then you keep it in your file. It does not serve anybody\'s interest.\'

On the other hand, Mr Low\'s speech about \'superior democratic processes\' and workers\' rights was more abstract and rhetorical, from the helicopter down. It was no less cutting for that.

For example, he said that he can make speeches but any legislative changes the PAP Government wants to push through will be effected because of its dominance in Parliament.

Minutes later, the Bill was approved to a resounding chorus of \'ayes\' and two \'nos\' from Mr Low and Mr Chia.

The PAP Government traditionally defends its strong executive power on grounds of swift decision-making crucial to the continued success of Singapore. This is a persuasive argument in today\'s terrorism-prone world.

In fact, even as MPs engaged in verbal fireworks, real fireworks were erupting outside, unknown to them. At about 3.30pm, as the Bill was being debated, office workers in the Suntec City area heard an explosion. It was an accident on the MRT Circle Line that caused the collapse of part of Nicoll Highway - but it could have been a terrorist attack.

When lives hang in the balance, it is difficult to gainsay arguments for a strong, decisive executive.

So Mr Low\'s rhetoric will remain that - stirring words that may resonate with a minority but are dismissed by mainstream political leaders.

But it is well to remember Dr Ng\'s own retort to the comment that the industrial relations code is just a \'piece of paper\'. Yes, he said, but \'it is a valuable piece of paper... an important starting point\'.

So Mr Low\'s warning about a powerful executive with too much dominance in the legislature may be just words but they are valuable words, and could perhaps turn out to be a starting point for future reform.

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Old 22nd Apr 2004, 10:58
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Alpa-S, which represents about 1,600 pilots,
Nice to hear they are now representing the expats too! They were NOT doing it back in the early '90s !

Well done Mr Low, you certainly have got balls.

Front bench ministers looked at him, (Low) stony-faced, during his five-minute oratory.
Should read: Intimidated Front bench ministers looked at him, $hitting themselves, during his five-minute oratory.
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