Issue 3 | JULY 2012
Interviews UPAGE General Secretary
On Cue

Profile of Mr Nachiappan s/o Sinniah

Mr Nachiappan has been involved in trade union work since the 1980s.

He is also a founder member of UPAGE and presently its General Secretary. He plays a leading role in maintaining good and harmonious industrial relations in the energy and utilities industry.

Mr Nachiappan holds a Diploma in Employment Relations awarded by SIM University and the Ong Teng Cheong Institute (OTCi).

He was recently conferred the prestigious Public Service Medal from the Government of Singapore for his contributions to the labour movement.

1. How has the role of the Union evolved over the years and how can it stay relevant with advancing technology and with a more educated workforce?

Industrial relations used to be confrontational in the 1970s. Progressively, the unions built trust and confidence with management. Whilst differences with management will exist from time to time, and that is natural, industrial relations today is largely consultative built on a foundation of trust and confidence. On its part, UPAGE has stayed relevant in many ways. We have helped over 2000 daily rated workers to upgrade themselves and get better jobs with better pay; ensuring workers’ interests are safeguarded in the face of continuous restructuring in the industry since 1995 culminating in the sale of power generation companies a few years back; and co-opting professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) into the leadership of the unions and at the branch level. UPAGE also represents director-level PMEs on their individual grievances, and UPAGE got companies to agree to extend their re-employment scheme for workers beyond 62 years old before this became mandatory in 2012.

2. With an increased emphasis on raising productivity, what are some of the areas that the union can touch on to heighten the productivity of workers and organisations in the power industry?

Companies must first acknowledge that they have to take the lead in productivity improvements. The union can help to rally workers to support management’s productivity initiatives and help ensure fair gain-sharing.

To upgrade workers’ capabilities in the industry, UPAGE got companies to work on an industry-wide Work Skills Qualification (WSQ) System for the Energy and Utilities sector. This will help raise skills and competencies, and provide clear career progression paths for workers.

3. Singapore faces several manpower challenges in the power sector. What role do you see UPAGE playing to help the power sector overcome the current manpower challenges?

UPAGE is a part of the industry-led Power Sector Manpower Taskforce comprising representatives from the government, academia, and union to come up with recommendations to address the long term manpower challenges faced in the industry.

UPAGE can provide valuable ground feedback on why workers choose to leave the sector, and ways to appeal to younger Singaporeans to join the sector. One observation made by the union is the proliferation of outsourced work to foreign contractors, particularly for maintenance work. More effort can be made to require these contractors to hire more locals and maybe even for companies to insource so as to maintain core competence in such work.

Secondly, UPAGE is pushing for WSQ training for the sector providing a more versatile workforce which can be cross-trained in various areas. Optimising the capabilities and potential of the current workforce is an integral part of the solution to address wider manpower challenges.

Finally, by being a strong and credible voice for workers in dealing with employers, UPAGE can help to enhance the sense of belonging amongst workers within the power sector.

4. In your years as a Unionist, what were some decisions you helped make that brought about positive changes for members of UPAGE?

Over the last few years, much emphasis has been placed on performance-based remuneration. Initially, some members were hesitant to accept this due to uncertainty over their income. However, UPAGE’s unionised companies pay reasonable bonuses when they perform well and members are happy with the outcome. That said, UPAGE must also continue to ensure that sustainable real wage continues to increase over time. Just as importantly, UPAGE also looks at workers’ base salary adjustments.

Another good example of positive changes made was when UPAGE convinced a group of employees to convert to shift work to avoid the job being outsourced, which could have resulted in job losses. Together with the company, we embarked on a re-skilling programme for these workers to be successfully re-deployed.

UPAGE also engages companies on reemployment of mature workers upon reaching the age of 62. We are heartened that a majority of the companies continue to hire based on current agreements set out with its employees.

5. What will be the focus areas and direction for UPAGE in the near future to build up the capabilities of its members in the next few years?

Training is something UPAGE believes very strongly in. With the support of NTUC Secretary General Lim Swee Say, UPAGE led an initiative in 2010 to kickstart the Energy Utilities WSQ, together with industry partners and the Workforce Development Agency. This is a structured approach to providing re-skill and multi-skill training for all groups of workers and UPAGE managed to reach out to its last batch of low wage earners for in-house and WSQ-based training. We also have key branch officials “buddy” workers who face difficulties in training. Passing rates exceeded 90%.

In terms of outreach, UPAGE seeks to expand beyond its traditional boundaries of power and gas to reach out to water-based companies. Increasingly, even our existing power generation companies are involved in desalination operations. We believe the union’s value proposition can be extended to this sector as well.