Ever wondered what’s an IRO and what he/she does?

TL;DR – Millennial Rafidah opens up about her work as an Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) and also about being a victim of online shaming.

In this What’s My Line series of articles, we look at different people and the jobs they hold to share more with you guys about careers in Singapore!

So we saw this Facebook post by Millennials of Singapore, (yes, the one with viral teenage mother story chalking over half a million views, woohoo!) and decided to reach out to Nurafidah for a chat. Since her friends call her Rafidah, let’s do that too.

Hey Rafidah, thanks for agreeing to chat with us!

Rafidaf: No worries, although it did take me a while to decide to step forward and share my story. But I reckon it’s important that people realise that there are always two sides to every story.

Talking about stories, shall we just address the big elephant in the room rightaway? What happened?

Rafidah: I cannot share too much details as this concerns the privacy of our members. But in a nutshell, I was on the receiving end of what be possibly be described as online bullying. It was a case where a member who had come to us for help, but the outcome didn’t go her way.

As with any case that came our way, we treated it with utmost care, rendering all the help and advice we could. In this particular case, we even went the extra mile and contacted her company as well as the Ministry of Manpower. We kept her updated throughout and ensured that she knew what was happening every step of the way. We made sure she knew her rights, and what we could and could not do.

Dissatisfied with the outcome of the case, she submitted a letter to an online publication with my full name to highlight her plight and to shame me for my “unwillingness to help”. It was definitely the darkest time in my career, and I felt really demoralised as though all my hard work was for nothing.

Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you feeling better now?

Rafidah: This is the first time something like this has happened to me. To be honest, I initially felt totally helpless. The member had submitted the letter to the website asking for anonymity. So she hides behind a fake name, whilst she has no qualms whatsoever publishing my full name out there. I feel upset that my family name’s dragged into this.

In my mind, it’s a biased account and the website did not even reach out to clarify matters and instead, it chose to just publish the one-sided account.

The initial few days were basically a roller-coaster of emotions, but I am thankful that I have a strong support system at work, from my family and friends to help me get through the trying times. Their words of encouragement and affirmation for the work I have done have been extremely helpful. I feel much better.

Why did you agree to share your story on Millennials of Singapore?

Rafidah: The opportunity was timely and I saw it as a chance to clear my name, and also to get my version of the story out there. It was not an easy decision though, I took a day and a night before I decided to do it. I mean, I was not immediately comfortable putting my name and face out there for the world to see.

Then I thought, this is not just about me, it’s also about the work of my other fellow IROs.

I have to commend you on your courage. It’s not easy to step up and speak up, but it’s necessary. In a world like ours where everyone thinks they can broadcast and publish stories like reporters, but not everyone understands the responsibility that comes along with it, it’s important to constantly remind everyone that fake news, alternative facts and biased accounts exist. We should be especially wary when someone hides behind the mask of anonymity or fake names.

How long have you been with NTUC as an IRO? Is this your first job?

Rafidah: I started as an intern working as an IRO at NTUC in 2012. That gave me a peek of real workplace issues and struggles faced by employees such as unfair treatment or remuneration matters. So after my graduation, it felt almost natural that I should continue this journey in helping employees overcome workplace challenges.

But I will be honest. Before my internship, I had only associated NTUC with Income, yes, insurance, and also FairPrice, the supermarket!

So how long has it been since you’re IRO and care to share your thoughts about the journey so far?

Rafidah: It has been five years into the job and I have learnt a lot in terms of the hard skills (eg. employment legislations guidelines) and soft skills (eg. negotiations, emotional resilience etc). I have gained valuable experiences from the various diverse cases that I handled.

My work involves dealing with the working people in Singapore and also the challenges and problems they face at work. it has made me more grounded and I now have a heightened awareness about workers and their plights. Whenever I come across news reports about worker-related issues, or even when I see people working in their jobs in my everyday life, I keep thinking, “Hey, these could be our members!”

Professionally, my confidence level at work has gone up, and my communication and negotiation skills have also improved over the years of working on members’ cases, negotiating for better terms, doing collective bargaining work.

What about personally? Has your work as an IRO changed you as a person?

I like that my work has made me grow not just professionally, but also personally. I have become a lot more appreciative and respectful of others and the work that they do. And I have also learnt to count my blessings and be grateful.

So as an IRO, which unions are you attached to?

Rafidah: I was previously attached to the Education Services Union (ESU). On top of helping ESU members with their cases, I was also involved in collective bargaining and also recruitment.

I’m now with the General Branch (GB) as IRO though. GB members are members whose companies are not unionised. So we have a team of four IROs who serve the GB members. Our primary duty is to handle GB members’ cases, which can be just work-related enquiries, or the more serious cases of grievances at work, including unfair termination, non-payment of salaries, harrassment, etc.

So these GB members just walk-in to NTUC to seek help for their issues?

Rafidah: Some members walk in, but there are also members who call in, email or contact us on social media. Sometimes, there are also cases referred by MPs from their Meet-the-People sesisons (MPS).

Are there many cases?

Rafidah: There are no fixed numbers every month, but we typically handle over a hundred cases every month.

What do you think are the key traits if one is interested to become an IRO?

Rafidah: I think empathy and being people-oriented are important traits for an IRO. And resilience. It is not easy to be sandwiched between our members and the management, and we have to listen to both sides and negotiate for the best for our members. If it doesn’t work out the first time, and it usually doesn’t, hehe, so we just have to try, try and try again.

The resilience part is important because as an IRO, you can be misunderstood as not doing your best if the members don’t get their way. So you just have to depend on your own inner strength to keep on believing and keep on doing what you have to do.

How about sharing one of the cases that left you with the deepest impression?

Rafidah: There was as case where a member was falsely accused and was reported to the authorities which led to an unfair dismissal. After studying the case details, I thought that the company had not given her the chance for a fair hearing and due process. I stepped in to ensure proper inquiry was done by the company and for her voice to be heard. She was distraught by the incident as she has a family and ailing elderly mother to support and care for. I felt moved to help in any and every way I possibly could.

We eventually secured an additional goodwill payment from the employer to tide her through the transition period and get a new job. I accompanied her every step of the way to ensure she was not alone in the fight. She was happy with the outcome as she was able to move on. I like to believe that the companionship and trust I had given her helped her through the tough period.

She gave me a little gift which I keep at my workstation. I look at it everyday and it gives me strength to carry on, especially when the online shaming incident happened.

A member’s little Thank You gift continues to give Rafidah the encouragement and motivation to carry on helping people.

Any final words to share with our readers?

Rafidah: If there is one thing that people should know, every case has their own merits and every IRO will strive their best to achieve the best outcome possible for the members.



Author: Maggie Wang

Hello, I'm probably your most socially awkward cave-woman this part of town. In the day, I work to put wanton mee on the table and chocolate ice-cream in the fridge. At night, I read a lot and write a little.


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