18.35 Activism - Young Union Leaders
Young SRCEU Union Leader Speaks Out

Story and Photos by Avelyn Ng, LabourBeat

Joel Liang, 31, has been working as a refinery technician at the Singapore Refining Company since June 2011. He oversees equipment maintenance and safety checks necessary in the crude distillation process. 

Most shift workers at the refinery hold their rest days sacred, except for overtime jobs, where they are quick to volunteer to earn extra cash. But not Joel.

Joel rose to the occasion to join Singapore Refining Company Employees’ Union (SRCEU) executive committee (Exco) after a member had flowed on in 2015. He is also SRCEU’s youth representative in Young NTUC.

Other than attending union-related meetings and events, Joel also forks out two nights a week to attend classes after he took up the part-time Diploma in Employment Development in October 2018.

“Juggling union work, job, and school can be quite tiring, but along the way, I made friends, and I find it fun. It is also quite satisfying when I can answer my members’ enquiries and reassure them. Even if they are looking to change careers, I can tap on my network as a union leader and help them find a job,” said Joel.


Inside the Role

According to Joel, some young employees have reservations about becoming union leaders for fear of going head-to-head with the management.

However, he stressed that the relationship is not a combative one.

Joel explained: “We actually talk over lunch and participate in teambuilding together. It’s a ‘you help me and I help you’ thing, not a ‘you are here to cheat me, and I’m here to demand more’ thing. In my course, I have learned to understand the difficulties of the management and how to strike a balance when negotiating benefits for workers.”

Joel likens his role as a bridge between management and workers, getting buy-in for the company’s new initiatives and gathering feedback from the ground.

“You will be surprised at how different people have different reactions and approaches to various problems. From the dialogues organised by the SRCEU and Young NTUC, you hear concerns and perspectives across industries from alumni, thought leaders, and even the public. I find the exposure very useful,” added Joel.


Challenges Ahead

Succession is a big challenge at Singapore Refining Company. 

Due to varied processes and equipment within the large compound, new technicians must undergo multiple job rotations over a few years before they are fully trained. The company is also lacking young talent, as many see the job as dirty and manual.

As a result, many of Singapore Refining Company’s experienced technicians are mature workers. About 40 to 50 per cent of its workforce is above 40. 

However, efforts are underway to transform jobs and groom a pipeline of skilled technicians. 

The company has progressively adopted technology such as e-logs, and it did an upgrade on barcode scanners to reduce paper trail and increase productivity through the seamless sharing of collected data.

The management is currently discussing with SRCEU on redesigning jobs for mature workers and for these workers to take on roles as mentors or trainers. They will also be working together to refine re-employment and retirement benefits.