Core Labour rights in Singapore

Posted by ICFTU under Labour Watch on 1 June 2002

Singapore has ratified two of the ILO core labour conventions. Various legal provisions many of which dating from colonial rule restrict rights, particularly with regard to trade union registration and to freedom of association in the public sector. Salary gaps between women and men persist and women continue to carry out a disproportionate share of low-paid jobs. Malays, who constitute approximately 15 percent of the total population, do not on average have the same educational or income levels of the other major groups in the population.

INTERNATIONAL CONFEDERATION OF FREE TRADE UNIONS (ICFTU)

INTERNATIONALLY-RECOGNISED CORE LABOUR STANDARDS IN SINGAPORE

REPORT FOR THE WTO GENERAL COUNCIL REVIEW OF THE TRADE POLICIES OF SINGAPORE

(Geneva, 29 and 31 March 2000) EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This report on the respect of internationally recognised core labour standards in Singapore is one of the series the ICFTU is producing in accordance with the Ministerial Declaration adopted at the first Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (Singapore, 9-13 December 1996) and endorsed at the second WTO Ministerial Conference (Geneva, 18-20 May 1998) in which the Ministers stated: "We renew our commitment to the observance of internationally recognised core labour standards." These standards were incorporated in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted by the 174 member countries of the ILO at the International Labour Conference in June 1998.

Singapore has ratified two of the ILO core labour conventions. In various areas, further measures are needed to comply with the commitments Singapore accepted at the 1st WTO Ministerial Conference in 1996 and the 2nd WTO Ministerial Conference in 1998 and in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted in June 1998.

One of the two core ILO conventions protecting trade union rights has been ratified. Various legal provisions many of which date from colonial rule restrict those rights, particularly with regard to trade union registration and to freedom of association in the public sector.

Neither of the core ILO Conventions on discrimination has been ratified. Salary gaps between women and men persist, although they are narrowing, and women continue to carry out a disproportionate share of low-paid jobs.

Singapore has not ratified the long-standing core ILO convention on child labour, nor indicated any intention to ratify the new child labour convention. Employment of children above the age of 12 is permissible, under strictly regulated conditions. There is no indication of child labour in Singapore, as a result of the high priority accorded to education by the government.

Only one of the two ILO conventions on forced labour remains in ratification. There is no indication of forced labour in Singapore.

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INTERNATIONALLY-RECOGNISED CORE LABOUR STANDARDS IN SINGAPORE

Introduction

The ICFTU's affiliate in Singapore is the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), with a membership of 260,000 workers. In total, trade unions in Singapore represent about 15 per cent of the workforce.

I. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Singapore ratified ILO Convention No. 98, the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (1949), in 1965 but it has not ratified ILO Convention No. 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (1948).

Workers are free to join trade unions in the private sector. The Industrial Relations Act makes it an offence to discriminate against anyone who is or proposes to become a member or an officer of a trade union.

Although the Trade Unions Act has been regularly reviewed and amended over the years, in consultation with the NTUC and the Singapore National Employers' Federation (SNEF), there remain various legal restrictions which are not consistent with core labour standards.

Forming a trade union is dependent upon the decision of the Registrar of Trade Unions, who has wide-ranging powers to refuse or cancel registration of trade unions, particularly where one already exists for workers in a particular occupation or industry. These could be used to obstruct their establishment and to impose a single trade union structure. However, a trade union cannot be refused registration or have its registration cancelled without being given the opportunity to be heard, although any appeal is decided by the Minister of Labour, whose ruling may not be challenged in any court. This law has not been used at all over the past 15 years. The Registrar is also given far-reaching powers under the law to investigate union finances.

In the public sector, there is no legal right to form and join trade unions. Indeed, Section 28(3) of the Trades Unions Act - which dates from 1940 when Singapore was under British colonial rule - contains a general prohibition on government employees joining trade unions. However, the President of Singapore has the power to make exemptions from this provision of the law. The Trade Unions (Government Officers Exemption) Notification grants such an exemption and in consequence, the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) is the second largest trade union in Singapore, representing over 20,000 workers. The scope of representation has been periodically widened over the years and since 1999, all public sector employees except the most senior civil servants have been able to join a union.

The AUPE, together with 14 other unions, also represents employees of most of the Statutory Boards in Singapore. Three Statutory Boards - the Public Utilities Board, the Urban Redevelopment Board, and the Housing and Development Board - only allow workers to join "in-house unions".

Most industrial relations disagreements are resolved through informal discussions with the Ministry of Manpower. If conciliation fails, the disputing parties usually submit their case to the Industrial Arbitration Court, which has representatives from labour, management and the government. 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. However, this has not occurred since 1981.

Collective agreements have to be certified by Industrial Arbitration Courts before coming into effect, following which point they become legally enforceable. The Industrial Arbitration Courts can refuse certification at their discretion on grounds of public interest - although this has never happened.

Under legislation which, again, has its origins in the consequences of colonial rule, the Industrial Arbitration Courts can also refuse certification for collective agreements in newly established enterprises if they provide for conditions more favourable than the legal minimum laid down in the Employment Act. This applies for a period of five years and can be extended. Exemptions from this can be granted upon application from employers and all such applications have been granted. The NTUC has called this law "outdated" and asked the government to amend it; the government has since told the ILO that it is reviewing this provision in consultation with the social partners. The NTUC considers the repeal of this provision to be likely.

In order for a strike to take place, Singapore's legal provisions require over 50% of all union members to vote in favour. This requirement is excessive by comparative international standards, since the requirement which is commonly regarded as reasonable is for over 50% of all union members who actually take part in the ballot to vote in favour.

Under Section 30 and Section 31 of the Trades Union Act, there are limitations on the election of union officers as well as whom they employ, which disqualify non-Singaporean citizens or those with criminal convictions from holding union office or becoming employees of the unions.

Sections 47, 48 and 49(a) limit the objectives on which unions can spend their funds and prohibit payments to political parties or the use of funds for political purposes, which according to the ILO are matters that should be dealt with in unions' own rules.

It should be noted that despite all the above legal restrictions, trade union membership in Singapore has risen some 36% over the last ten years. Unions have been able to negotiate collective agreements on behalf of their members which provide a relatively high standard of living.

In summary, various legal provisions many of which date from colonial rule restrict freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in Singapore, particularly with regard to trade union registration and to freedom of association in the public sector.

II. Discrimination and Equal Remuneration

Singapore has not ratified either ILO Convention No. 100 on Equal Remuneration (1951), or ILO Convention No. 111, Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) (1958).

The Constitution states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection under the law. The Employment Act ensures non-discrimination in recruitment, promotion and terms of employment.

Women make up 41.5 percent of the labor force and are well represented in most sectors. In 1962 the government instituted the principle of equal pay for equal work in the civil service. However, female civil service employees who are married do not receive health benefits for their spouses and dependents as do male government employees, due to the expectation that the male is the main breadwinner in a family.

In the private sector, women hold few leadership positions. They still carry out the preponderance of low-wage jobs such as clerks and secretaries. Furthermore, the wage system is strongly seniority-based (i.e. dependent on years of service) which disproportionately affects women who, in Singapore as in many countries, tend to have fewer years of service due to their greater likelihood to leave the work-force for child-care reasons. As a result, women's average salary levels are 76 percent those of men although the gap has been narrowing over the years due to the entry of increasingly better educated women into the labour force. Over the last fifteen years, the share of women in all professional/technical jobs has increased from 35.1% to 40.4%, while the share of women in all administrative/managerial jobs has increased from 10.5% to 18.2%.

Malays, who constitute approximately 15 percent of the total population, do not on average have the same educational or income levels of the other major groups in the population. Advertisements sometimes specify ethnicity (or gender) requirements or require fluent Mandarin speakers. However, the income gap has narrowed in recent years. The government has taken measures to promote greater educational achievement among Malay students. The Ministry of Manpower has, in consultation with the NTUC and Singapore National Employers' Federation, jointly formulated, issued and implemented a set of Tripartite Guidelines to encourage employers to select candidates based on merit, experience, capability and other such non-discriminatory job requirements. These are reported to have greatly reduced the number of discriminatory job advertisements.

There is no legislation that provides for equal opportunities for the disabled in employment. However, there is an extensive job training and placement program for the disabled. A comprehensive code on barrier-free accessibility has been implemented since 1990, which established standards for facilities for the physically disabled in all new buildings.

. Salary gaps between women and men persist in Singapore, although they are narrowing, and women continue to carry out a disproportionate share of low-paid jobs.

III. Child Labour

Singapore has not ratified either ILO Convention No. 138 (1973), the Minimum Age Convention or Convention No. 182 (1999), the Worst Forms of Child Labour, nor has the government indicated any intention to do so.

Children are allowed to work above the age of 12, subject to various restrictions. Children between 12 and 14 may work in "light work suited to [their] capacity" and are prohibited from employment in any industrial undertakings. Children between 14 and 16 may work up to 7 hours a day although not at nights, and may not work on commercial vessels, with any machinery in motion, on live electrical apparatus lacking effective insulation, or in any underground job. These regulations are enforced effectively by the Ministry of Manpower of Singapore.

ILO Convention No. 138 states that, depending on the level of economic development and administrative facilities, the minimum age for light work should be 13, and only provided it does not interfere with education and training. It further stipulates that the minimum age for full-time employment should be 15. Concerning these matters, the law of Singapore is not in conformity with international legal standards on child labour, in view of Singapore's high level of economic development.

However, the government has achieved the virtual elimination of child labour through its substantial investment in education. 23.4% of government spending is on education, which is one of the highest levels in the world. Primary education is virtually universal and there has been a substantial increase in literacy over the last fifteen years.

Employment of children above the age of 12 is permissible under strictly regulated conditions. However, there is no indication of child labour in Singapore, as a result of the high priority accorded to education by the government.

IV. Forced Labour

In 1965, Singapore ratified ILO Convention No. 29, the Forced Labour Convention (1930) and ILO Convention No. 105, the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957), but in 1979 Singapore denounced Convention No. 105.

Forced labour as such is prohibited in Singapore. However, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has criticised sections 3, 13 and 16 of the Destitute Persons Act of 1989, which state that any destitute person may be required to reside in a welfare home and engage in suitable work, or face penal sanctions. The government of Singapore has responded that despite such provisions, admittance of persons to a welfare home and their possible employment is on an entirely voluntary basis.

There is no indication of forced labour in Singapore of a significant scale.

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CONCLUSIONS

The government of Singapore needs to take various measures to bring Singapore's law into compliance with internationally recognised core labour standards. It should ratify urgently ILO Conventions No. 87, No. 100, No. 111, No. 138 and No. 182 and should ratify once again ILO Convention No. 105. Singapore needs to revoke those long-standing colonial labour laws which deny trade union rights, and bring its legislation on freedom of association and collective bargaining in line with minimum internationally-recognised core labour standards. In the area of discrimination against women, more active measures are needed to address the wage gaps and occupational constraints on employment for women, including increased adult education to enable women to improve their skills, positive action programmes, provision of equal health benefits and enforcement of the law on equal rights, including continuing implementation of the Tripartite Guidelines to prevent discrimination in job advertisements. The minimum age for full-time employment should be raised to at least fifteen years of age, in line with international minimum standards for Singapore's level of economic development. The minimum age for part-time employment in light work, with the stipulation that it must not interfere with education and training, should be raised to at least thirteen. The provisions of the Destitute Persons Act of 1989 which infringe international labour standards on forced labour should be amended as indicated in ILO recommendations. In line with the commitments accepted by Singapore at the Singapore WTO Ministerial Meeting and its obligations as a member of the ILO, the government of Singapore should therefore report to the WTO and the ILO on its actions to implement fully core labour standards. The WTO should draw to the attention of the authorities of Singapore the commitments they undertook to observe core labour standards at the Singapore and Geneva WTO Ministerial Conferences. The WTO should request the ILO to intensify its work with the government of Singapore in these areas and provide a report to the WTO General Council on the occasion of the next trade policy review.

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References

Education International (EI), Barometer on Human and Trade Union Rights in the Education Sector, 1998.

Government of Singapore, Country Paper presented to second meeting of Senior Officials for the Advancement of Women in East and South-east Asian countries, 1997.

ICFTU, Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights, editions from 1993 to 1999.

ICFTU Asian and Pacific Regional Organisation (ICFTU/APRO), Labour Flash (news bulletin), various editions.

ILO, Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, editions from 1994 to 1999.

National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Legal Rights & Support Services for Women Workers, 1994.

NTUC, Wild Allegations, 1994.

US Department of State, Report on Human Rights Practices for 1999, 2000.

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