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.
I recently caught up with United Workers of Electronics & Electrical Industries (UWEEI) General Secretary Tan Richard at his union office along Joo Chiat Road.
Known to many as Brother Richard, he is also the chairman of the NTUC Electronics, Marine and Engineering cluster.
He opened up on how the electronics and electrical industry has seen growth during these unprecedented times, the challenges brought about by COVID-19, the need to transform, and why he does union work.
Being a Union Leader
Brother Richard is one of the humblest union leaders that I have met to date. He admitted that he never really put much thought into the difference he could make until an incident changed his opinion of the work he does in the union.
He recounted: “There was this case once where I was helping this union member who had a heart issue. We knew that he could no longer work, so we worked with the company to raise some funds to help with his medical bills.”
During Brother Richard’s visit to the member’s home to pass him the cheque, he witnessed the family’s worries and anguish as the member was the sole breadwinner with four young children.
The youngest child then was only 3.
He remembered having to muster his emotions as he comforted and advised the member’s wife on the steps she ought to take. Then, a few days after that visit, the member passed away.
With his tears welling up in his eyes, Brother Richard said: “After this case, I thought to myself, ‘Luckily I am a union rep, and I was able to help’. If there was no union, who would have helped this member and his family?”
Attracting Talent and Sector Growth
On attracting younger workers into the sector, Brother Richard said that he had spoken to fresh graduates and final year students about joining the electronics and electrical sector, but many have their reservations about entering the sector.
“They [the students] worry that what is required of them might be different from what they have learned in school. They have heard that the technology moves very fast,” he said.
He also shared that some may have felt that manufacturing is a sunset industry, while others had a preconceived notion that manufacturing is dirty and unglamorous.
“I have told these students that the manufacturing you will see today is no longer like the old days … the manufacturing we have now, the environment is clean,” he explained.
“And there is potential in the long term as well. Take COVID for example – when COVID-19 happened, I contacted several companies to see how they were coping. A lot of companies shared with me that they were doing very well.”
The Ministry of Trade and Industry reported that, on a year-on-year basis, the manufacturing sector expanded by 10.7 per cent for the first quarter of 2021. This was attributed to the output expansions in the electronics, precision engineering and chemicals clusters.
But that was not to say that the electronics and electrical sector did not have any challenges during this current pandemic.
Brother Richard shared that there were approximately 12,000 Malaysian workers (in unionised companies) who were affected by Malaysia’s Movement Control Order, many of whom were unable to return to work in Singapore once they went back home across the border.
“I have received many calls from companies about the shortage of manpower, asking me if I was able to solve their manpower issues,” he said.
As such, UWEEI has been working with NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) on filling the vacancies. For those who were urgently looking to fill positions, the union has also been working directly with those companies, sometimes through the Job Security Council, to get workers who may have been retrenched in other firms to fill those roles.
Beyond that, the union also worked with the companies to source accommodations for those Malaysian workers who were willing to be temporarily relocated here in Singapore.
Training and Transformation
Brother Richard is a firm believer of transformation – believing that digitizing and upskilling leads not only to efficiency but also better work prospects for workers.
He shared that even before COVID, he was working with his company to introduce automation and robotics. This has helped transform the production process at his firm and requiring both fewer workers and man-hours to achieve the same or even greater output.
He said: “If you’re talking about overtime, I will say that is an old concept. In today’s context, we should not be relying so much on overtime. We should look at how technology can help our workers’ salaries move up so that they can spend more time with their family.”
But if that technology replaces manpower, shouldn’t workers be concerned?
He explained: “I have been to a few companies, and yes workers are concerned. A lot of them have shared with me that they are not supportive of technology because once technology comes into play, they will lose their jobs.
“So I shared with them what my company has done, and that my workers initially had the same thoughts as them. But after going through training and the implementation of technology, they now inform me that it has lightened their workload and that their salaries have also increased [because of upskilling]. Now they can let the robotics do their work, and they can move on to focus on other things.”
He added: “But beyond my cluster, I always tell workers that if their companies offer any training opportunity, just take it. It will help you. Because as you progress further down the road, you will see that with a wider skillset, your salary will also improve. Plus, you will never know if one day, you will need the skillset to work in another industry.”