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.
He strutted into the conference room with a slight swagger, briefly apologising for his delay as he hung up the call on his mobile.
Making his way to the head of the meeting table, he set his phone and thermal mug down in front of him before leaning back into his seat with his hands together, fingers intertwined.
“So, how can I help you with your job today?” he asked with a cheeky grin.
I knew then that this conversation was going to be different.
Singapore Insurance Employees’ Union (SIEU) General Secretary Luke Hee (or Brother Luke) is unlike most of the other union leaders that I have met to date.
Throughout our three-hour conversation, he was non-apologetic about his beliefs and opinions, and ever-so often breaking out in boisterous laughter.
He has served in the Labour Movement for over 20 years, devoting much of his professional life towards union work, at the expense of his own career progression.
In 2007, he shared that the union approached him to go full-time into union work. He took up the offer and has been working from the union office on secondment basis ever since.
Role of the Labour Movement
When asked why he chose this life, he simply replied: “I’ve always believed in the cause of the Labour Movement. This is not a politically correct answer, this is the truth.
“But I also think we are currently going through an evolution. The Labour Movement is not the same as it was when I first started. I would not say it is right or wrong, that is a very personal judgement, but my only hope is that we do not lose our soul.”
He then proceeded to quiz me on the definition of the Labour Movement, to which I threw out something about unions being there to voice out the concerns of its workers.
He replied: “You are close, but not quite right. Fundamentally, the Labour Movement is a voice – it is a voice for workers, it is a voice for our members. The original name of the Labour Movement was called ‘Organised Labour’ and that I think is, in itself, self-explanatory.
“So, in order for labour to have a voice, we must be organised; strength in numbers. In other words, our core function is to organise. Because if you are not organised, how are you going to speak on behalf of one voice for the people?”
This was when Brother Luke shared why NTUC’s new slogan for its 60th Anniversary struck a chord with him.
He explained: “I think we must stay firm to the fact that we must be clear in what who we are and what we do … This shift to put members first may be subtle, but I think it is significant. Because at the end of the day, we now recognise the importance of membership at its core.”
The Banking and Financial Services Sector
As chairman of the Financial and Professional Services Cluster in NTUC, Brother Luke gave his views on the outlook and problems faced in the sector.
He shared: “From a global finance perspective, we would all know that Singapore aspires to be a finance hub, which we more or less are. With the political instability seen in Hong Kong, it has lost some of its lustre as a finance hub, and we’ve become the preferred choice because of our transparency, our governance, and our stability. Basically, predictability.”
While this is a good thing, Brother Luke shared that the sector still sees its share of challenges, especially when it comes to areas such as welfare and training.
He said: “The finance sector [in Singapore] is close to 90 per cent foreign owned. Insurance alone is around 95 to 97 per cent foreign owned, and banks are not far from that … From history, the finance sector derived from the West, and you will, therefore, see a predominance of Western companies and foreign companies.”
So why will that pose an issue?
He continued: “After the global financial crisis, many of the foreign finance institutions have ‘improved’ their policy – I use the word ‘improved’ for lack of a more diplomatic word. CEOs tend to stay for a shorter time, and they [the financial institutions] use that as a matter of governance.
“With this constant, rapid change of CEOs, coupled with the pandemic, you can imagine that management don’t plan very long-term. Their interest in long-term views is lesser now compared to the past.”
And all these, according to Brother Luke, has a trickle-down effect to the workers. Because unions are focused on the long-term interests of workers, this will put management and union on a different frequency and thus, different objectives.
This is why he feels that for workers in the finance sector, the quickest way for many to achieve career progression and salary increment is for them to job hop rather than to go for training.
“One job hop in the finance industry, a person will get approximately 30 per cent increase in pay. You want them [workers] to train for one job in the same company, they will say you are crazy,” he laughed.
But he is still supportive of training. In 2019, he signed a memorandum of understanding with 23 insurance companies to show that SIEU will stand alongside management to support training for employees and to help them progress.
On the Priorities of SIEU
Brother Luke hopes to be able to represent more PMEs in the insurance industry.
“My biggest challenge now is getting the Form B for executives,” he lamented.
Under the Industrial Relations Act, Form B is used to gain recognition of a trade union from management of companies.
“This is my suggestion,” he said. “Today if you want to represent executives collectively – be it on transparency of pay structures, bonuses, medical benefits, leaves – you need to go through secret ballot for a second time even if the company is unionised. Why is this so? If the company is already unionised, that means that there is already an established relationship with the union. If the union can show that the PMEs are joining them, it is already an expression of intent. Why should they go through another secret ballot to express that intent? This system may potentially strain the relationship between the union and management. Tripartite partners should build on past works and ensure a more collaborative future, not a more legalistic one.”
He concluded: “As a union movement, we have to understand that we are a collective voice for workers. Only when we are representing the majority effectively can we then take care of the minority, such as low-wage workers or freelancers.”