Union Leader K. Thanaletchimi on Healthcare Workers and Unions Coming Together

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By Ian Tan Hanhonn

For 60 years, union leaders have been at the forefront of taking care of workers’ wages, welfare and work prospects. This article is one of a 14-part series where union leaders from various industries give insights into what matters to them and workers on the ground.

K. Thanaletchimi or better known among union members as Sister Thana is a union leader who needs little introduction.

The 55-year-old union veteran served as a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2016 to 2018 and has spent much of her healthcare career advocating workers’ welfare and rights.

Currently serving as the President of the Healthcare Services Employees’ Union (HSEU), she is also a champion for all working women in Singapore, chairing the NTUC Women’s Committee, and serving as the First Vice-President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO).

On Worker-Union Relations

Having spent some 30 years in the Labour Movement, Sister Thana said that the bond between the union and healthcare workers have always been strong, and it is more of a question if the union has done its job to reach out to the workers.

She revealed: “Our membership penetration rate in healthcare is very high and we are very happy with that, but we want to do more. The difference between 30 years ago and now is that we are increasingly seeing more professionals, managers, joining the union, and this is very heartening.

“Over the years, we have also expanded the scope of representation to even cover senior nursing officers with their grievance issues. With that kind of empowerment given to the union to better able to represent the higher hierarchy of the workforce, I think it gives more credibility to the union and the trust that the workers have that the union can represent most of the workers is there.”

On COVID-19’s Impact on the Healthcare Services

She also shared how the ongoing pandemic has taken a toll on healthcare workers, both physically and mentally.

“The fear of the virus is everywhere, and people are taking lots of precautions. And with that comes ostracisation. With that comes abuse – both verbal and physical. Because the fear is that healthcare workers will pass the virus to them,” she said.

But she was quick to add that such cases were the work of the few and that most Singaporeans were supportive of the healthcare workers. Overall, she still managed to find a silver lining whole pandemic situation.

She described how HSEU worked together with unions like the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) to house healthcare workers in hotels when they were forced out of their rented accommodations by their landlords, and how HSEU worked with NTUC Club to set up a temporary childcare centre at Orchid Country Club for the children of healthcare workers when childcare facilities within hospitals had to cease operations.

“COVID-19 has been a very challenging battle that we have been struggling with over the last two years,” she explained.

“Nevertheless, I think the positive side of COVID-19 is that it brought people together, especially the healthcare workers and unions. Caring for our members and our workers forged a bond during the challenging times when people who were facing problems required a friend to lean on. They discovered the union to be that friend,” she added.

On Transforming the Sector

Having formed the Healthcare Academy with NTUc’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) and NTUC LearningHub (LHUB) in 2018, Sister Thana said that HSEU has got big dreams for the future of the healthcare sector.

“Working closely with NTUC’s Training and Transformation division, we want to be the Healthcare Academy for the healthcare sector, especially in the intermediate and long-term care (ILTC) services and care support groups,” she disclosed.

She explained that the plan for the initial years of the Healthcare Academy is to upskill and reskill healthcare workers to ensure that the sector has the necessary talent to serve such a large section of the healthcare community.

“For the next five years, we want to focus on the training needs of our other professionals by working together with our union associates. We have a lot of union associates who are part of an alliance with HSEU such as the Physiotherapy Association, Psychotherapy Association, Occupational Therapy Association, Singapore Nursing Association, and many others…

“If we can collaborate with them, we can do a lot more to train the future needs of healthcare professionals, especially Singaporeans in the healthcare sector.”

On the Essential Domestic Services Cluster

As the chairperson of the Essential Domestic Services Cluster – which predominantly consists of unions in the healthcare, education and civil service sector – Sister Thana shared that they all shared a similar goal, which is to drive membership and upskill their members.

She said: “I always feel that whether I am in the cluster or HSEU, the objectives are similar… As a cluster, we look at how can we better innovate the business model of the union. Every union in our cluster is focused on membership – How do we innovate our membership model? And when we talk about training, I think every industry is unique to itself. We all have challenges with training and upskilling our workers.

“But being in the cluster allows for the convergence of ideas and the convergence of objectives. The cluster allows us to cross-pollinate our ideas and it gives us a repository of things that we can look at when we have problems.”

On Transformation

Sister Thana felt that the willingness to transform is vital in today’s work environment.

“There is a saying that goes, ‘Institutions live longer than men’. That is because leadership is transitional, but the institution is the basis of what you believe in, it is your ideology. Institution normally survives longer than man, so long as it is transformational.

“So what I am saying is that we need to transform. Not only ourselves, but as a union, an institution and as the Labour Movement. And the transformation must yield positive outcomes for the workers, for Singapore, and more importantly, for our future generation.”

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