Singapore: Violation of Trade Union Rights 2007

Posted by under Labour Watch on 6 July 2008

Under an amendment to the Trade Unions Act adopted on April 20, 2004, union members no longer have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and the employer.

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Several restrictions in the labour law are outdated and not applied in practice; unions have asked for the law to be revised in order to reflect that. Under a legislative amendment introduced in 2004, union members no longer have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their representatives and the employer. They do, however, retain the power to vote their union leadership out of office.


Private sector - limitations on the right to organise

The Constitution gives workers the right to join trade unions in the private sector, although the Trade Unions Act makes an exception for uniformed personnel. Any group of seven or more prospective members can form a union, which is acceptable by international labour standards. However, parliament may impose restrictions on the formation of a union on the grounds of security, public order or morality. Formation is also subject to the approval of the Registrar of Trade Unions who has wide-ranging powers to refuse or cancel registration, particularly where a union already exists for workers in a particular occupation or industry.

Public sector

The Trade Unions Act still prohibits government employees from joining trade unions, although the law gives the power to the President of Singapore to make exceptions from this provision. The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) was granted such an exemption, and its scope of representation has expanded over the years to cover all public sector employees except the most senior civil servants. In addition to AUPE, 15 other public sector unions, including public employees paid on a daily rate, are exempted.

Interference in internal trade union affairs

The Trade Unions Act restricts the right of trade unions to elect their officers, and whom they may employ. Foreigners and those with criminal convictions may not hold union office or become employees of unions. However, exemptions can be granted by the Minister.

The Act also limits what unions can spend their funds on, and prohibits payments to political parties or the use of funds for political purposes.

Collective bargaining rights restricted

Under an amendment to the Trade Unions Act adopted on April 20, 2004, union members no longer have the power to accept or reject collective agreements negotiated between their union representatives and the employer. The change in the law was in direct response to a dispute involving the pilots' union, Airline Pilots Association - Singapore (ALPA-S), described in the previous issue of this Survey (2005). The NTUC, however, notes that union members retain the power to vote out their leaders by secret ballot during elections at the union delegates' conference, or at an extraordinary meeting called by members. The amendment also does not preclude union leaders from consulting their members to secure a mandate on terms of the collective agreement that are acceptable to them, at any time before the executive committee reaches agreement with the management. Union members are also not precluded from demanding that their unions reflect their views before making any proposal or concluding a collective agreement. Both happen in practice.

Restrictions on the right to strike

To call a strike, 50 per cent plus one of all the trade union's members must vote in favour, rather than the internationally accepted standard of over 50 per cent of those actually taking part in the vote. Workers in "essential services" are required to give 14 days notice to an employer before taking strike action, although strikes are prohibited in some essential services such as water, gas and electricity.

There is no specific legislation which prohibits retaliation against strikers.

Collective bargaining - court can reject agreements

Collective agreements between labour and management are renewed every two to three years, although wage increases are generally negotiated annually. Guidelines for negotiations are recommended by the National Wages Council, which includes labour, industry and state representatives. The aim of the council is also to provide a means by which labour can influence government policy on wage-related issues.

Collective agreements must be certified by the tripartite Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) before they come into effect. The IAC can refuse certification on the grounds of public interest, although in practice it has never refused to certify a collective agreement for this reason. Certification protects union members, in that a certified agreement is legally binding to both the employers and the union. Transfers and lay-offs are excluded from the scope of collective bargaining, although unions have the right to ask for the reasons behind the retrenchment and are not precluded from negotiating compensation for workers in such cases.

Disputes can be settled by means of consultations, negotiations and conciliation through the Ministry of Manpower, where the procedures are clearly laid down by the Industrial Relations Act. If conciliation fails, the parties may submit their case to the IAC. In limited situations, the law provides for a system of recourse to compulsory arbitration, which can put an end to collective bargaining at the request of only one of the parties, although this provision of the law is rarely invoked.

The last time it was invoked was in 2004, when the Minister of Manpower compulsorily referred a dispute between the Singapore Industrial and Service Employees Union (SISEU) and a textile company to the IAC over the management's delay in concluding a collective agreement.

Increased representation for executives

Trade unions succeeded in getting the Industrial Relations Act amended in July 2002, to allow rank-and-file unions to represent executive employees in disputes concerning dismissal, retrenchment benefits and breach of individual contract. This amendment does not affect the right of executives to form their own unions.


With the exception of five unions representing about 2,400 workers, the rest of the country's 63 unions are affiliated with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), an umbrella organisation closely linked to the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). During the 2001 elections, a number of NTUC labour candidates ran for Parliament on the PAP ticket, and all were successfully elected. The NTUC's current Secretary General also serves as the Chairman of the PAP. Both the current NTUC Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General hold seats in the Cabinet as Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office. The NTUC-PAP relationship, which dates back to elections for Singapore's first democratically elected legislature in 1955, is described as "symbiotic" and was formally endorsed in 1980 at the NTUC Ordinary Delegates Conference. It was publicly reaffirmed in December 2004.

Union leaders are elected through secret ballot.

Restrictions not applied

Practice suggests that many of the laws are outdated, as in practice, many of the potential restrictions are not applied.

The unions have called for these outdated restrictions to be removed from the country's legislation.


The government's tight rein on industrial action, and the tradition of non-confrontational industrial relations, has meant that there have been only two recorded days of strike action since 1978.

Migrant Workers

Foreign domestic workers have little opportunity to organise to defend themselves, or demand improvements in their conditions of work. However, the NTUC reports that it does seek to advocate for their rights through its Migrant Workers' Forum.

Sources and Relevant Links:

ITUC Singapore: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2007)

ICFTU Singapore: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2006)

ICFTU Core Labour rights in Singapore 01 June 2002

Today Protect, don't dismiss, pregnant women workers 08 April 2007

Think Centre Wan Soon Construction fined for non-payment of salary17 October 2006

Reuters Singapore rejects calls for maids' mandatory day off 10 March 2006

Today Having kids can cost some mothers their jobs 19 April 2005

Think Centre Singapore: 200 Indian Workers protest at Indian Embassy 29 June 2004

Think Centre Want to Work: Sign away your rights 01 May 2002

Think Centre Decent Work and Wages for All 01 May 2002

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