At a time when unemployment continues to rise and workers are forced to take salary and pension cuts, the relevance of unionism in Singapore has become a soul-searching issue. A Gallup survey revealed that Singaporean workers are becoming increasingly disenchanted, with 17 per cent described as 'actively disengaged', that is, showing negative attitudes to their work and employer. Many now publicly voice concerns about the role and relevance of the labour movement, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), especially when many companies have been making pre-emptive layoffs, while unions appear to stand by. Earlier this year, the labour union chief, Lim Boon Heng, who is also a government minister, said there was little unions could do if firms chose to lay off workers. This comment has echoed ever since: what are the unions doing if they are not defending their members? By international standards, the labour movement here is pretty tame. While unions in Europe can wield immense power, often going head to head with their governments, those in Singapore show little combative spirit. When the French government announced plans to reform the pension system, by raising the age at which public-sector employees could take their full pensions, unions took to the streets and nearly paralysed the country. In Singapore, the government announced painful changes to the Central Provident Fund, cutting the employer's contribution by 3 percentage points. Meanwhile, 'several hundred' unionists had already been sent to China to get a first-hand understanding of how much cheaper labour is there, and why the policy changes were so necessary if the economy is to remain competitive and workers are to retain their jobs. Under attack, Mr Lim has defended the unions' track record by pointing out that negotiations with employers are often conducted behind the scenes. In August, he said these had resulted in the settlement of 95 per cent of the 11,000 industrial-relation disputes that arose in the last two years. His argument is that preserving industrial peace is very important if Singapore wants to continue attracting investors. There is certainly something to be said for the lack of strikes in Singapore that makes a welcome change from the constant inconveniences encountered by the ordinary person in the street in Europe, often taken 'hostage' in the war against employers. But as a result of its non-confrontational attitude, the NTUC is often blamed for being too pro-management. Last week, labour union leaders met for a three-day National Delegates Conference, where members were told it was time to refresh the movement and make it more relevant to workers. Two key priorities have been identified: helping retrenched Singaporeans find jobs and restructuring the wage system. The NTUC is also coming forward with a S$20.8 million (HK$93.4 million) relief package by absorbing through its food co-operatives part of January's goods and services tax rise. Although it is welcome, it would seem to further support the idea that there is little point in joining a union and paying your fees, as the supermarkets are open to all.