Trade Unions in India and Singapore and Their Comparison

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Communication between humans have always been a factor in disputes between an employer and employee. To regulate and minimise such events from occurring and causing more disputes to arise, trade unions are common in many countries to do as such. A few aims in mind when implementing trade unions would be to promote better relationships among employees and their employers, resulting in better communication between them and – hopefully – an increase in productivity. [1]

Overview and challenges


When we think of trade unions in Singapore, we tend to think of The National Trade Union Congress (NTUC). Although this fact is false since it is a national confederation of trade unions rather than a union on its own, NTUC is the centre of the Labour Movement, compromising many unions, social enterprises, related organisations, growing associates, and enterprise partners. [2] Their key objectives would be to better the nation’s economy through improving employee’s working conditions as well as to increase productivity, all while encouraging the fostering of better relationships between employers and their employees. [3]

There were two big Trade Union Congress in Singapore that started in the 1960’s, the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), which had communist roots and whose true intentions were to overthrow the British rule as well as Singapore as whole, and The National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), who had non-communist roots from the PAP side and wanted to gain independence for Singapore through democracy. SATU was banned in 1963 after holding an illegal strike against the government, making NTUC the only trade union congress by default. [4]

NTUC’s activities and involvement have evolved from aiming to improve employee’s working conditions and relations to being concerned about other matters such as career transitions and its implications to employees, as well as retirement planning among many other services and programmes they offer for citizens, now inclusive of their families rather than the employers and employees. [5]

NTUC and PAP share a bond since PAP had a hand in forming them, the relationship a give and take one. Leaders of PAP are closely linked to them as they had given advice to their future affiliates in different ways. Since they are strongly affiliated, they both benefit each other by suiting their needs such as PAP’s expertise in the trade union field to assist NTUC in their collective bargaining activities, for example. What made both NTUC and PAP stand alongside each other would be their common goal of improving industrial relations albeit their different ways, a political approach for PAP and the trade union approach for NTUC.

Some challenges faced would be the lack of tripartism in the early years, causing simple conflicts such as having no proper basis for an incentive scheme. Another one would be, globalisation affecting Singapore’s growth, making sure that workers stay relevant in the workplace. [6] To overcome this, NTUC produces and implements things like SkillsFuture to help workers progress in their job and a new job. [7]

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India’s story of unionism started with the Britishers textile mills. With the First World War beginning, the textile mills were faced with more work, to which they did not hire more workers for, making their working conditions worse. The terms of the law passed also favoured the owners over the employees. Such unfair treatment would be the reason for unionism to start in India. [8]

Being such a big country, India’s trade unions are governed under national and state-specific legislations. Their main trade unions are affiliated with different political parties, with unions forming as early as 1920. [9] There are two main trade union congress listed among the top trade unions which is the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) who have member affiliations with the Communist Party of India as well and the Indian National Congress, respectively. [10] This shows that the political parties have an influence on their respective trade unions, resulting in political leaders who have never experienced how other workers feel to be managing such unions, potentially causing barriers between the management and the staff. [11]

With many people trying to gather management support, multiplied trade unions are a problem in India at this day and age. With different unions in the same sector rivalling each other for the support rather than working together, the trade union movement is rather weakened as unions are busy trying to gather membership numbers before being able to focus on their original objectives for starting it. [12]

A few challenges faced by trade unions in India would be, the political control on trade unions, the multiplicity of unions, and the low membership. The first challenge mentioned is the political control of the trade unions where political parties have influence over the trade unions that they are affiliated with – such as the INTUC being affiliated with the Indian National Congress. This makes the problems of the employees under the unions unsolved as they are known to make such problems a political issue rather than a simple work issue.

The next challenge would be the multiplicity of unions where there are many unions who are being backed by different parties, causing an abundance of unions in the different sectors. Since they are following different parties, they are bound to have different perspectives which do not allow them to collaborate and solve the problems their employees are facing. This would cause no end to their problems as they would be against their ideas in one way or another.



As the trade union federations above are affiliated to political parties in the respective countries, this shows their similarity in a sense that the government and the labour movement in the country is linked. Another similarity is that both India and Singapore were under British colonial rule when the unions were legalised and more actively involved. Both countries had to get approval from the colonial government before establishing the trade unions, trying to fight for better conditions for their local workers. The main factor for India to take unions more seriously would be the unfair laws that favoured factory owners over the workers, and to strive for independence in a non-communist way for Singapore.


The first difference would be how both countries strive for their rights. India’s unions, seeing that their government is not helping them, choose to organise a three-day strike to get their message across. [15] This is a vast difference compared to Singaporean employees as there are many measures places in a company or sector that enables an employee to voice their frustration by going straight to the government branches or the Industrial Arbitration Court to hear out their cases objectively. The next difference would be that the priorities of the countries unions are different, India’s trade unions focus on their membership strength to secure management support due to the overwhelming number of unions, which is a problem as mentioned above in part 2.2. In comparison, Singapore’s unions focus on their membership strength to receive representation from all the different sectors to not underrepresent anyone in the workforce.


In conclusion, by having trade unions that focus on their competition and rights rather than their productivity, India still has much to improve when compared next to Singapore. With strikes still being prevalent there, it would be hard to see how the trade unions will change unless their political parties affiliated to them change their mindset about working together for the greater good of the employees of the nation. With that said, due to the constraints on strikes in Singapore with the fines and laws attached to it, it would benefit citizens a little if they knew of their rights, which thankfully NTUC offers lessons on under their legal clinics. I would say that there is clearly a difference in the labour movement of a developing country and a developed country. In such situations, with the amount of people in a country like India sometimes it pays to be small country.

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