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.
Sometimes, when you do not find your calling, your calling finds you.
That was pretty much the case for Sanjeev Kumar Tiwari, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE).
Before joining the Labour Movement, Brother Sanjeev was working as an administrator at the Ministry of Education. While the role was largely deskbound, his affable and outgoing nature desired something beyond sitting at a desk from nine to five.
Then by chance in 2007, a recommendation from an old friend helped steer his career towards a different purpose – the Labour Movement’s.
After working in industrial relations with NTUC for almost 10 years, he joined the AUPE as a fulltime industrial relations executive, steadily making his way to his current position.
Today, he is also a Central Committee Member and chairman of the Public Service Cluster at NTUC.
“It is really the passion for the job that drives you. When you have that passion, you will not wake up every morning and question yourself if you need to go to work – you will know that there are things to be done,” he said.
Work Grievances in the Public Sector
While there has been plenty of work grievances heard from various private sector workers over the last 20 months, especially with the ongoing pandemic, such issues have remained largely silent in the public sector.
Curious, I asked Brother Sanjeev why he felt this was so.
After a slight pause, he conclusively responded: “I believe the primary reason is the public sector unions have done a good job. The public sector did have its fair share of turbulence in the 60s to the early 90s, from strikes to antagonistic approaches with the Government.
“But I think we all learned, the public sector employers as well as the unions, that we have to take a more collaborative approach and build that trust and labour-management relations. That then allowed us to structure a lot of things within public service,” he said.
Along with a consultative approach, Brother Sanjeev believes that the transparency between the unions in the public service and the Government has helped break down friction that had existed previously.
“Having said that, AUPE still deals with a fair amount of workplace issues from public officers annually. They can range from grievances to policy matters.
“But I think primarily, because we’ve established a decent working relationship management, that makes it easier for us to resolve things. That’s why you don’t kind of end up showing anything in public, leading to the perception that there are little or no issues,” he added.
“Does it perhaps have anything to do with the fact that many civil servants regard their jobs as an iron rice bowl, and hence would not want to jeopardise their career by voicing their grievances?” I asked.
“It may have been an iron rice bowl, but now it has been downgraded to a wooden rice bowl,” he replied with a laugh.
“Why many people still think that it is an iron rice bowl is because the public sector does not adopt a hire-and-fire mechanism, which is why this perception dwells. In the public sector, we have a framework to manage under-performers, providing opportunities to improve and to get back on track.
“What’s more, as the public sector is providing citizenry services and ensuring public administration, the KPIs are very different and not solely about the bottom line.”
Beyond Workplace Grievances
Beyond all these, Brother Sanjeev feels that there is a lot more to union work than just settling grievance cases.
“I think that union work goes beyond that – from providing a simple listening ear to an employee who needs a little bit of a morale booster, to trying to chart how we can help not just the employees of today, but in tomorrow’s workforce,” he explained.
And that role itself is enough to keep anyone busy. He went on to explain how union leaders had to work with employers, policy makers and other various parties within Labour Movement to enhance the lives of workers.
For him, he believes that the best thing that unions can do for their workers is to provide them with a job – one gives them fair salary for their work that would allow them to keep their family afloat.
Back to COVID-19
So public service workers’ jobs were not affected by the pandemic then?
Brother Sanjeev disagreed, saying: “On the contrary, it has been a roller coaster ride for officers across the public agencies, and more so for our colleagues in the frontline like MOH, MOM, NEA, ICA and many more. They had to double up to do enforcement work, and some of them may not even have been doing enforcement in their daily roles.
“As officers in the public service, they have to respond to the crisis at hand. As a result, they could be transferred within public service to do the work [where it is required].”
This has resulted in many officers feeling the overwhelmed by the changes and the challenges of new job functions.
With that said, the public service unions have stood by the workers during this period, checking in with them regularly, gathering ground feedback on how they are coping and relaying these findings back to management to discuss ways to improve the situation for the workers.
Negotiating Better Wages
Throughout our conversation, there was a greater sense of focus on workers’ wellbeing, and not so much on improving their wages.
Was this because the unions in the public service had little influence on improving the wages in the sector?
Brother Sanjeev clarified: “We [the unions] still play an important role for wages because we still provide an aggregation to some of these things. We are still a part of those negotiations like the annual variable component, the mid-year and the year-end bonuses. Those are all negotiated for.”
What the unions in the cluster hope to achieve is really improve the wages of workers through the improvement of their welfare and work prospects, he added.
He said: “What we hope to do with public service is really the other two W’s. Through those, we hope that wages will be substantially better, and that makes perfect sense right because if I can increase the value of the job, enhance the role that the officer plays on the ground, then I have more reasons to say that this officer should be paid better salary.”
His Message to Workers
For Brother Sanjeev, he wants all workers in the civil service to know that the unions are there not just for the rank-and-file workers or the PMEs, but for everyone.
He said: “Here is where the people make the union, not the union that makes the people. The unions will be there for all workers and more importantly, it will be them who will then help us chart our objectives for the workforce.
“Remember that the unions are a platform for workers to express their concerns, hopes and aspirations. Once we have that we can then put all these things together and see how we can uplift their wages, welfare and work prospects.”