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Union Leader Andy Lim Talks About Retrenchments, Redeployment and Workplace Grievances in the Retail Sector during COVID-19

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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 11-part series where union leaders from various industries give insights into what matters to them and workers on the ground.

Unlike many union leaders who are still under the employment of a unionised company, The Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union (SMMWU) Deputy Secretary General Andy Lim (also known as Brother Andy) is a fulltime trade unionist.

Beyond SMMWU, Brother Andy is also the chairperson of the Hospitality and Consumer Business Cluster at NTUC.

His passion for union work started when he was an employee at Orchid Country Club. It was an Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) from SMMWU who first got him interested in union work soon after Brother Andy was elected as a branch official.

He recounted: “It was the IRO who showed me the value of being a union member, and the value of fighting for the workers. In a way, he sort of set the path for me to become who I am today.

“I enjoy the brotherhood of the union. I enjoy it when people come to me and I am able to resolve their problems for them. There is a kind of satisfaction and sense of achievement in the work we do.”

COVID-19 on the Retail and Attractions Industry

In his years of working as a unionist, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the most detrimental effect on the attractions, and particularly, retail portion of the cluster.

He said: “This [pandemic] has really had a big impact on the aviation and the tourism industry. This then had a trickledown effect to the attractions and retail industry, affecting the sector tremendously. As tourists are still not coming in, retailers are not able to generate profit.”

He further elaborated that Singapore was not able to fall back on its domestic market, unlike bigger countries such as Japan.

“When I last visited Japan, their amusement parks were filled with locals. In Singapore, unless you have kids, I do not think that many locals visit these attractions. So we are really heavily dependent on our foreign tourists,” he said.

Brother Andy also got visibly annoyed when some netizens suggested a second circuit breaker to curb the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, which has once again risen due to the emergence of the Delta variant.

He said: “Politics aside, as a unionist, we need to be objective. We need to look at what is beneficial for our workers. Can we really close our borders? I have seen a lot of people on social media saying that we should just close our borders, reinstate circuit breaker and all, but can we really do it? Probably, but who are the ones who will suffer? It is our workers.

“COVID-19 changed everything. We had retrenchments last year and it was tremendously high. For retail – we saw big names like Robinsons fold. It has never happened before. There were employees who have been working with their companies for 10 solid years, did they get anything? They got nothing.”

How the Union Helped

Since the start of the pandemic, Brother Andy shared that SMMWU has been mainly involved in management of retrenchment cases, redeployment and grievances.

When Mustafa Centre and DFS Group made headlines with their staff layoff announcements between August to September 2020, the union was there to help affected employees discuss redeployment terms, as well as negotiate better retrenchment benefits.

The union was also by the side of its members when Robinsons announced plans to shutter its retail business a couple of months after.

“Because we are an omnibus union, we are not restrained to a certain sector,” said Brother Andy.

“Where there is a manpower glut, we are able to refer those who have been retrenched to other sectors. The logistic sector is still growing, and we were able refer affected workers from the retail sector here.”

But what the union has been most busy with is the handling of grievance cases.

Differences in Expectations

Brother Andy shared that while workers want to be fairly compensated for the work they have done, companies on the other hand are worried about maintaining liquidity.

“It is a mismatch of expectations really,” he said.

“Some workers do not feel or see that the business is suffering. Hence, they still demand the highest possible increment they feel is owed to them.

“But because of COVID, many companies will have this mentality that, yes bonuses may be based on last year’s performance, but should I give up on everything and not set aside for a rainy day? Can I promise an increment when tomorrow’s outlook is still so uncertain?”

So how do you reach a compromise?

“I cannot speak for my counterparts, but what I have done [for grievance cases] is I have told companies that we [the union and the member] can accept their proposed increments, provided that the case is reviewed once again in six months to a year,” Brother Andy said.

While I thought that such an agreement would not sit well with members, Brother Andy’s stand is that it is better to remain employed and have no increment, than to insist on a high increment only to be retrenched later.

“What I can say is, let’s be in line with our companies – through the good and the bad,” he responded.

“When we get through this journey together and reach the light at the end of the tunnel, we will be given what we deserve., If not, the union will be there to fight for your rights.”

 

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