Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association



With the port being the cornerstone of Singapore’s economy, the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association (SHBSA) – which on 18 October 1946 became the first union to be officially registered under the 1940 Trade Unions Ordinance – has played a pivotal role in the social, economic and political development of Singapore. It has certainly come a long way from its early days as a fledgling union in the immediate post-war years and through the turbulent 1950s and early ’60s. The association was renamed the Singapore Port Workers Union in 1968.1

Early years
The SHBSA began life as a recreational club that organised social and sports activities for monthly-rated junior clerical workers. Although the association later expanded its role to represent members on bread-and-butter issues when it was registered as a trade union, it was unsuccessful in advancing the long-term interests of the workers. It managed, nevertheless, to get some concessions from the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB) management to improve workers’ living conditions.2


As membership in the SHBSA was limited to clerical staff, daily-rated port workers joined other unions in 1946. Although there was much jockeying by some unions to take over other unions, the SHBSA managed to resist these attempts. Eventually, it emerged as the sole union representing all categories of port workers.3

In the immediate post-war years, the SHBSA was involved in helping workers cope with the high cost of living as well as scarcity of food and resources. Besides making representations to the management for increased allowances to cope with high costs, the union also arranged for bread rations to be delivered to the workplaces of its members when it found out that some of them were unable to get their share at the collection venues.4

Industrial disputes
In the 1950s, the cost of living continued to soar due to commodity shortages, and the SHBSA requested the SHB management to increase cost-of-living allowances for its members. The SHB turned down this request. Relations between both parties became increasingly strained when the SHB repeatedly disregarded the SHBSA’s representations for higher pay and better working conditions over the next few years.5

In 1954, trade union leader Jamit Singh rallied the SHBSA to oppose the SHB over the continued poor working conditions of its members. A 14-day strike notice was served on the SHB on 31 March 1955. On 30 April the following month, about 1,300 SHBSA members went on strike to demand for better working conditions. Although there were six different unions representing port workers at the time, the port could continue its operations because the other unions were not involved in the dispute. The strike ended after an agreement was reached on 6 July 1955 between SHBSA and the SHB on improved wages and conditions of service.6

Merger and further disputes
Lee Kuan Yew, who was SHBSA’s legal adviser in the 1950s, recommended the re-organisation and merger of the labour unions to attain better bargaining power.7 On 21 April 1956, five unions of the SHB agreed to merge and form a single union, the Singapore Harbour Board Workers’ Union (SHBWU). However, the scheme did not materialise because some of the unions could not get the necessary quorum at their respective meetings. They succeeded later in the year and the SHBWU was registered on 20 October 1956.8

The establishment of the SHBWU paved the way for the SHBSA and Singapore Harbour Board Employees’ Union to merge with it, thereby forming one union. However, the SHBWU was unable to obtain approval from the SHB management to operate at the association’s premises in Cantonment Road. To get around the problem, the SHBSA changed its constitution on 11 March 1957 to admit non-clerical workers and in the process absorbed all SHBWU members. The SHB, however, still refused to recognise the SHBSA as the union representing all its daily and monthly-rated workers.9

In protest, the SHBSA gave an order, on 25 June 1957, for its members to “go-slow” and stop all overtime work. The episode, which resulted in the dismissal of some workers, ended after three weeks, following the recommendation of the Court of Inquiry for the SHB to reinstate the dismissed workers. When the affected workers were not reinstated, a hunger strike was staged on 17 December. The strike ended on 26 December when the Minister of Labour and Welfare promised to resolve the matter. However, it remained unresolved until the People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power in 1959. The issue was finally resolved in August 1960, when the new government ordered the reinstatement of the dismissed workers.10

Political turbulence
In 1960, the Trade Unions Ordinance was amended to empower the Registrar of Trade Unions to de-register splinter unions and to disallow the establishment of new unions that target workers who were already represented by existing unions. That year, the SHBSA was recognised as the sole union representing all daily and monthly-rated workers in the SHB, and the remaining SHB unions were de-registered.11

In 1961, pro-communist members of the PAP split from the party and formed Barisan Sosialis. As a result, the trade unions were split into two camps – the pro-PAP National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and the pro-Barisan Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU).12 By that time, the SHBSA had been deeply infiltrated by the pro-communists and it joined SATU. In 1963, SHBSA’s general secretary Jamit Singh, and treasurer Yeow Fook Yuen were arrested for alleged criminal misappropriation of union funds, while the militant leaders of SHBSA were apprehended during Operation Cold store. On 22 July 1963, the SHBSA was de-registered as a trade union for violating the Trade Unions Ordinance and its own rules and constitution. On 10 January the following year, the SHBSA was re-registered under a new constitution and became an affiliate of the NTUC.13

Establishment of PSA
On 1 April 1964, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) was established. It replaced the SHB and took charge of all matters relating to the port and harbour.14 Under PSA, the working and living conditions of port workers were improved, and relations between PSA and SHBSA were also strengthened. In 1966, PSA leased a piece of land at Cantonment Road to the SHBSA at a nominal fee for the building of a union house.15

Re-organisation
The SHBSA was renamed Singapore Port Workers Union (SPWU) in 1968 and its building, completed in 1969, became known as Port Workers Union House. In August 1969, the SPWU was investigated for corruption and its executive committee subsequently resigned in January 1970. A 14-man caretaker committee was formed to re-organise the union, but by then, membership had dwindled to 400. In 1972, V. Jayakody, who was seconded from the Ministry of Education to NTUC, took charge of the re-organisation efforts. Jayakody reunited the workers and strengthened the union. Under his leadership, the SPWU was able to balance the interests of its members and those of PSA.16

By September 1972, SPWU’s membership had risen to 3,000. With the support of the SPWU, PSA was able to implement many changes to improve productivity. In return, the workers were provided with wage increments, better accommodation and a more conducive work environment. Over the years, the SPWU and PSA introduced various initiatives to improve workers’ welfare. For example, a joint welfare fund was set up to ease the impact of rising costs. Co-operatives, supermarkets, canteens and a counselling centre were also set up, and textbook grants and bursaries provided to members for their children’s education. In 1985, the SPWU managed to negotiate a single collective agreement for both daily-rated and monthly-rated workers who were previously under two different collective agreements.17

Handling retrenchments
In 1980, PSA laid off 300 staff under the Golden Handshake Scheme contained in two new collective agreements signed with the SPWU in July 1980. The scheme allowed PSA to terminate, with compensation, employees who were unable to perform the full duties expected of them.18

In 1996, when the government announced plans to privatise PSA, many workers feared that they would be retrenched. Retrenchment did not take place and the PSA management assured all workers of a job if they were prepared to be retrained.19

PSA was corporatised on 1 October 1997 and became known as PSA Corporation (PSA Corp).20 In 2003, amid growing competition from ports in the region, PSA Corp announced plans to retrench 800 workers to trim operating costs.21 Although the company was profitable, the SPWU and the government recognised that the move was unavoidable to keep it competitive. The SPWU negotiated for a fair retrenchment package for the workers and worked closely with PSA Corp to help members ease into new careers. PSA Corp sought help from NTUC, the Ministry of Manpower and executive recruitment agencies, and a job fair was organised for affected staff.22

Timeline
18 Oct 1946:
SHBSA is formally registered as a trade union.

30 Apr 1955: Strike by SHBSA members begins.
6 Jul 1955: Strike ends after an agreement was reached between SHB management and SHBSA.
21 Apr 1956: Five SHB unions agree to form a single SHBWU to represent all port workers.
20 Oct 1956: SHBWU is registered.
11 Mar 1957: Change in SHBSA’s constitution to allow it to represent all port workers and to absorb SHBWU members.
1960: SHBSA becomes the sole union representing all port workers.
1961: SHBSA becomes an affiliate of SATU.
22 Jul 1963: SHBSA is de-registered.
10 Jan 1964: SHBSA is re-registered under a new constitution and becomes an affiliate of NTUC.
1 Apr 1964: PSA is formed to replace SHB.
1968: SHBSA is renamed SPWU.
Aug 1969: SPWU is investigated for corruption.
Jan 1970: Executive committee of SPWU resigns and a 14-member caretaker committee is formed.
1972: SPWU is re-organised under V. Jayakody.
9 Jul 1980: Two new collective agreements signed by PSA and SPWU.
1 Oct 1997: PSA is corporatised, becomes PSA Corporation.



Authors

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Makeswary Periasamy



References
1. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. vii, viii, 41. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR); Colony of Singapore. Government gazette. (1946, November 22). (G.N. 1507). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 695. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SGG)
2. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union, pp. 22, 24–25. Singapore: Times Books International. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
3. Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, p. 82. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS)
4. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 24–25. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
5. Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, pp. 82–83. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS)
6. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 28. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR); Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, p. 83. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS); Harbour staff men serve strike notice. (1955, April 1). The Straits Times, p. 7; The lightning strikes. (1955, April 30). The Straits Times, p. 6; 66-day harbour strike is over. (1955, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
8. Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, pp. 83–84. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS); Five unions merge. (1955, April 22). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association. (1967). Souvenir magazine: Anniversary. Singapore: Author, pp. 83–84. (Call no.: RCLOS 387.1095957 SHBSAS)
10. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 30–31. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
11. Passed – the new unions’ charter. (1960, May 14). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
12. Leong, C. (2004). PAP 50: Five decades of the People’s Action Party. Singapore: People’s Action Party, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 LEO)
13. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 39. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
14. Port of Singapore Authority. (1984). Singapore: Portrait of a port: A pictorial history of the port and harbour of Singapore 1819–1984. Singapore: MPH Magazines, pp. 15–17. (Call no.: RDLKL 779.93871095957 SIN)
15. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 41. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
16. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 41–42, 48–52, 59. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
17. Singapore Port Workers Union. (1986). The port worker and his union: The first 40 years of Singapore Port Workers Union. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 41–42, 48–52, 59. (Call no.: RSING 331.88113871 POR)
18. Chee, L. (1980, July 10). New agreements will cost PSA at least $6m. The Business Times, p. 13; Lim. I. (1980, July 14). 300 to get PSA’s golden handshake. New Nation, p. 2; PSA to lay off staff in bid to stay competitive. (2003, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Ahmad Osman. (1996, June 28). No retrenchment of workers after PSA is privatised. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Sim, W. C. (1997, September 17). PSA to be run as private firm after corporatisation on Oct 1. The Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Urquhart, D. (2003, February 18). 800 jobs to go in PSA revamp to fight competition. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore port operator to lay off workers amid tight competition. (2003, February 16). Agence France-Presse. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
22. PSA Corp workers to get notice letters, retrenchment package on Monday. (2003, February 22). Channelnewsasia; PSA Corp to help retrenched workers find jobs over next 3 months. (2003, February 24). Channelnewsasia; Buddy system, job offers and March job fair for retrenched PSA workers (2003, February 24). Channelnewsasia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/


The information in this article is valid as at 10 May 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Organisations>>Trade Unions
Business, finance and industry>>Economics>>Labour economics>>Labour unions
Labor unions--Singapore
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Labour and employment
Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association--History