Prime Minister's May Day Message 2019

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 30 April 2019

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Message 2019 in English. 


May Day Message 2019

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Fifty years ago, the NTUC held the Trade Union Seminar on Modernization of the Labour Movement. This was a crucial turning point. At that time, the NTUC was in a state of decay, with falling membership and growing disenchant­ment among the rank-and-file. The Seminar caused the labour movement to fundamentally shift from confrontation to collaboration. The unions worked with Government in support of newly passed laws like the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act, and new institutions like the Industrial Arbitration Court. We set up NTUC Income and a whole series of labour cooperatives, to provide workers with affordable essential goods and services. This is how the NTUC became a vibrant, progressive organisation, an essential and equal partner in Singapore’s unique model of tripartism.

Today, the labour movement is at another turning point. Our external environment is changing rapidly. New jobs are being created even as old industries and jobs are phasing out. The future of work looks very different. The NTUC must anticipate these challenges, and prepare the unions, union leaders and workers for them early, before they overwhelm us.

For instance, the NTUC has played a major role in promoting the re-employment of older workers. It has helped build tripartite consensus to raise the retirement and re-employment ages further. The NTUC has also championed the progressive wage model, which, together with Workfare, has made a real difference to lower wage workers.

Another major long term task is to upgrade and retrain workers. In collaboration with NTUC, the Government has started many upgrading and retraining programmes, under SkillsFuture and Adapt and Grow. We continue to improve the programmes, as we gain experience with them and new needs emerge. For instance, in this year’s Budget we introduced the Automation Support Package and the Productivity Solutions Grant, which will help companies adopt technology and become more productive.

In January, I visited the Lifelong Learning Institute. There I met Singaporeans who had upgraded themselves through our Adapt and Grow programmes, and subsequently taken up new jobs or enhanced responsibilities, sometimes switching firms or even industries. The banks particularly have made a major effort, retraining thousands of counter staff to use new technology and move to different roles. We are accumulating more such success stories, which I hope will inspire others to make the effort to improve your skills and productivity.

These efforts are starting to be felt at the macro level. Last year, labour productivity grew by 3.7%. This is a good result, although progress was not evenly distributed. The gains were largely in the outward-oriented sectors, especially manufacturing. We still need to work harder to improve productivity in domestic services, such as retail and food and beverages.

Last year the retrenchment rate was low – the lowest in more than 10 years. Our efforts to retrain employees and prepare them to handle new technology and different jobs made a difference. Had we not strongly emphasised training, upgrading, and redeploying staff, companies might have taken the easy way out, retrenching old workers and replacing them with freshly hired new graduates, and the dislocation would have been much worse. We must keep up our efforts at training and upgrading. It is a marathon without end, but we are making progress.

Our labour movement therefore has good reason to be proud of its record over the last 50 years. A strong labour movement remains crucial to us. In many developed countries, union membership is falling, and organised labour is becoming marginalised. Workers’ concerns are not addressed, and they feel bewildered, leaderless and helpless. Not surprisingly, they turn to extreme, nativist political movements that pander to their fears and insecurity, but offer no realistic solutions or inspiring leadership to improve their lives. In Singapore, constructive and cooperative unions, together with enlightened employers and a supportive government, have delivered better incomes for workers and steady progress for the country. We must stay on this path, and strengthen trust and cooperation among the tripartite partners, so that despite the uncertainties and challenges in the global economy, we can continue to thrive and prosper together as a nation.

I wish all Singaporeans a very Happy May Day.

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