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Manila: Through The Eyes of Young Unionists

It is in the moments we leave the comfort of familiarity to travel that we really appreciate the world beyond our shores.

For 42 young unionists who joined Young NTUC on their 2019 Overseas Workplan Seminar in Manila, Philippines, from 21 to 24 March 2019, it was an eye-opening experience that gave them a fresh perspective on Singapore’s place in regional development, learn more about an overseas labour movement, and discover themselves.

Surbana Jurong Learning Journey

The three-day visit programme kicked off with a visit to Surbana Jurong’s office in Manila where the unionists got to learn more about Surbana Jurong’s regional operations. Tapping the resources available in the Philippines, the company has established a Global Shared Services (GSS) and Global Design Centre (GDC) to enhance its competitiveness and support the company’s key business operations worldwide. It’s little wonder that it has steadily grown to become one of the top 10 urban and infrastructure development companies in the world.

“It was eye-opening for me to see how the planning and design of mass housing is done in their GDC and how artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology impacted their business in their GSS. I am really impressed with the demonstration of how AI has processed their payroll to improve productivity, increase cost efficiency and most importantly zero errors.

“Through the learning journey, I also learnt that engineers in the Philippines have been working closely with Singapore teams to design HDB flats, MRT stations, multi-storey carparks. These have made me realise that we are indeed global citizens who need to minimise cultural differences as much as possible while collaborating with talents around the world for the greater good. The Filipinos are very hardworking, and they take pride in whatever they do. I can see how they are very passionate and enthusiastic towards what they are doing,” shared Christine Chua, from the Singapore Chinese Teachers’ Union.

Getting To Know SENTRO

While the first day gave the young unionists a close look at a Singaporean company’s role in regional development, the second day saw them get personal with the labour movement in the Philippines, Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa or SENTRO.

Through open dialogue, the young unionists learnt more about how workers are represented in the Philippines. In SENTRO’s case, they focus on serving the interests of their 80,000 members and growing this number.

The young leaders discovered that while tripartism has helped forged a harmonious labour environment in Singapore, their Philippine counterparts don’t have it as easy. Contrary to the collaborative approach in Singapore where the Government, unions and employers prioritise workers in what they do, the union in the Philippines often work in isolation. Challenges abound when the ruling government there offer little support for the labour movement, with industrial action frequent adopted as a means of effecting changes. Even then, the effects of these efforts are often inconsistent, with limited results.

Overcoming Challenges

Despite these challenges, SENTRO and its affiliates are also aware of the challenges in the fast-changing economic landscape. But unlike Singapore’s Labour Movement, which plays a significant role in advocating training and upgrading, SENTRO and its affiliates have limited resources to do so. Instead, they play a big role in encouraging members to take advantage of government-funded schemes. 

As a means of advocacy, SENTRO has also extended its outreach to youths in school with APL Youth (Alliance of Progressive Labour-Youth). According to union representatives, outreach is one of the methods they employ to educate the next generation of members on their workplace rights.

“I have nothing but respect for SENTRO. From what they have shared, it is not easy to establish an individual union in the country, much less a central union office. Corruption is real, and the exploitation of cheap labour is rampant.

“The unionists there are strong in their faith in what they stand for. Before they can even start to think about helping their members to stay relevant, they must establish a strong foundation as a union, which is providing their members with fundamental rights. Certain basic rights like getting the right pay for their jobs and getting their pay on time are not covered in some workplaces. These are the fundamental issues that they must fight for before they can even consider tripartism and advocating upskilling for their members,” shared Jaysen Tang form the Port Officers’ Union.

Life in Manila

For a better perspective of working life in the Philippines, the young unionists also visited a local community (Barangay Pasong Putik), a school (Maligaya High School) and a workplace (Makati Medical Centre).

These visits gave them more profound insights into what work-life in Manila was really like. In the process, they appreciated what Singapore has to offer.


“Education is something that Singaporeans take for granted. The student representatives highlighted that their scholarships could be taken away from them if they are caught to be involved in strikes or even coax other students to enter the student unions,” shared Nuraini Zakaria from the Education Services Union, as she highlighted how student leaders are focused on achieving equality in opportunities for education among students.

“Looking at their living environment, it is really different from what we have here in Singapore. They do not have systems in place for affordable housing. Even union fees may be taxing for the people there. I think some those in the youth union committee might be a bit too young to know what they can do for their committee,” said Phyliscia Goh from The Singapore Manual & Mercantile Workers’ Union following her visit to the community.

“Young people in Singapore are comfortable and apathetic-whether it being in school or as working adults. It is really good to see young people being so involved in the future of their own country … I do think that it is crucial for young people to find their own voices and beliefs such that they can also play an important part in navigating Singapore's future.

“Unionism in the Philippines also has a different dimension than in Singapore. It is quite inspiring to see the unionists stand firmly for what they believe in,” shared Goh Huishan from the Singapore Teachers’ Union.

“My learning journey was at Makati Medical Center. The leaders there had shared their experiences as unionists and the challenges they faced in the healthcare industry. We were informed that different healthcare organisations are under different union bodies and it was not easy for them to have agreements with each other due to a difference in philosophy. However, their determination to overcome all struggles and make the workplace in the Philippines a better one is really eye-opening for workers like us from Singapore. There are so many privileges and benefits that Singapore workers get, but we take it for granted,” added Nurul Fatin Sapari from the Education Services Union.