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Saturday November 1st 2014

5 Lessons to Learn from the PRC Chinese SMRT Strike

Latest: Police has arrested four PRC Chinese drivers for illegal strike.

In the midst of a unusually rainy wet festive November  month, Singapore was hit with a bombshell when 170 PRC Chinese bus captains conducted an illegal strike two days ago.

Citing work pay difference between themselves and their  Malaysian counterparts and the difficult living conditions at their apartments,  these foreign workers ironically broke a 25-year-old peaceful labour movement here.

Under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, essential service workers cannot go on strike unless they give their employers 14 days’ notice of their intention. 

With the highest GDP growth in the world, the people here definitely suffer from the lack of proper human rights  as even a one-man public demonstration is considered illegal and the perpetrator can be hauled to  court.

Many local and foreign workers rather suffer in silence for fear of reprisal if they take matters into their own hands so the PRC Chinese workers are commented for their brave acts and some even labelled them as heroes!

Many Singaporeans nevertheless  complained about our over-dependence on foreign workers for essential services as they can bring the whole country down if they decide to strike amass or go slow.

The PRC Chinese SMRT drivers also could not speak English well and many passengers are left frustrated when these drivers could only look at them sheepishly if requests for  bus directions are make in English.

It will be wise to only keep the foreign hirings to  less than half of the total labor force for essential services like transport, healthcare and community services.

I have listed seven lessons which we can learn from the PRC Chinese SMRT strike.

1. Tweak the tripartite movement to better represent our workers

The tripartite movement – a tight employer-labour union outfit which works closely with the government has served us well for the past two over  decades though may Singaporeans have complained that the movement is more pro-employer than anything else.

Employment contract is  often drawn up  favouring the employers and many executives were unfairly dismissed with minimal compensation rights.

Transitioning has seen more than twenty cases of unfair dismissal so far and many are unable to find the right body to represent them for arbitration – not even MOM or  TAFEP (Fair Employment Act).

MOM refuses to arbitrate for the dismissed executives if their salaries are above $4500 and many have no choice but to seek legal redress on their own or simply walk away in resignation as they feel that ultimately the employers will always win.

Arbitration is also just for salary matters and touches nothing on unfair dismissal due to poor performance which employers often used to sack middle-level executives.

Formed by the government to better manage workers’ rights and the employers’ needs, it has managed to ensure a peaceful labour environment for the past 25 years – without a strike.

The PRC Chinese SMRT illegal strike unfortunately broke that enviable record which  has brought us much labour peace and prosperity to our country.

It is timely for  our government to relook  the aim of the tripartite movement and tweak it if possible to include the arbitration needs of our 2-million-strong  foreign workers.

I have also heard that SMRT did not provide that union coverage for the foreign workers and this is a concern as it means that SMRT officers are trying to negotiate directly with them in the event of a dispute and we now see how it can go bad when there is no third-party independent arbitration body.

Most of SMRT’s foreign drivers are not union members, while the majority of SBS Transit’s roughly 580 China-born drivers are.

2. Over-dependence on foreign workers in essential services

Many Singaporeans are also concerned about the over-dependence on foreign workers manning essential services.

It is believed that more than 70% of the SBS/SMRT bus drivers consist of foreigners from Malaysia, PRC China,  India, Philippines among others.

The healthcare sector also hires predominantly foreign workers and one wonders what will happen if all the workers decide to walk out from the public restructured hospitals!

Transport is indeed also an essential service and it will be disastrous if there are regular strikes which will paralyse our bus transport routes.

Workers will be late for work creating much havoc in the process and foreign workers knowing that they have a powerful arbitration right will use this as their bargaining chip.

SMRT and SBS should continue to improve pay and work conditions so that our locals will be attracted to such work which has all along being filled up by foreigners.

In Sydney, most bus transport work  is performed  by locals as the starting pay is close to A$3000 excluding over-time pay.

The Railcorp work – their inter-state transport rail line is even more well-paid if you work during the weekend.

A friend I knew in Sydney who works in Railcorp takes home an average of A$4000 a month as he volunteers to work during the weekend and evening shift – which pays mind-boggling lucrative over-time allowance.

Even nurses and healthcare workers are paid close to A$3000 basic a month excluding weekend and evening shift allowance which can jack  up your total take-home pay to A$5000 a month on average before tax.

To attract locals to work in the transport sector, SMRT and SBS have to really think of creative ways to reduce their dependence on cheap third world labour which can be unreliable.

The SMRT strike hopefully will force the management to improve pay packages and work conditions so that more locals will join the transport sector.

3. To strike or not to strike?

It is also timely to relook at criminalising illegal strike as under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, essential service workers cannot go on strike unless they give their employers 14 days’ notice of their intention. 

However, I doubt if the PRC Chinese workers will be charged under the law for conducting the 2-day illegal strike.

Of course, we also don’t want to have the situation whereby strikes occur every other month disrupting work flow and the economy too much.

To the workers, a strike if conducted carefully can be useful as it will force the employers to arbitrate and take their concerns seriously.

On the other hand, employers will always want to look for the cheapest way to carry out their business so that their profit margin can be improved.

Sometimes, even if these foreign workers  are brought under the protection of the unions, their requests may still not be heard – especially here when our unions are seen as  toothless and ineffective.

I am sure that our foreign workers will have heard of this before and decided to take matterss into their own hands.

I have also heard of many stories from our own aggrieved workers who found NTUC to be  too pro-employer and pro-government that they are not seen as capable of arbitrating  for the rights of the union members.

The Singapore National Employer Federation (SNEF) is also seen as too powerful and they are often well quoted by the press when there is any  labour-related matter.

There is now the Association for Small and Medium Enterprises (ASME) which speaks on behalf of local small businesses and they are pretty vocal too.

I have yet to hear from our unions so far when there is a labour-related issue and if ever they do speak, its often something that favours the employers or the government.

One can hardly hear the voice of the workers through our unions in our local press and this is a shame!

NTUC also wastes too much time looking for members to sign up for their Passion card which promotes discount for eateries and shopping malls when they have failed in their main core duty  to look after the welfare of the workers.

Unless NTUC  improves on their arbitration rights for our marginilised unionised workers, I am afraid that our foreign workers will continue to turn to  illegal strikes as their only effective outlet.

4. Improve employment terms and conditions

All along, employers have the upper hand when it comes to drafting terms and conditions for their workers.

The PRC Chinese SMRT saga shows that SMRT pays its’ Malaysian and PRC Chinese bus drivers differently.

In a statement yesterday – its most detailed since the saga began on Monday – SMRT explained why the salary between drivers from Malaysia and those from China differs, while vowing to improve in other areas (Today online 29 Nov)

It said that while the S$1,075 starting salary of those from China are lower, as compared to those from Malaysia at S$1,400, the company has to pay for the accommodation, utility bills, and daily work transport of the Chinese drivers. This amounts to S$275 per month.

In addition, the drivers from China are on a two-year contract, which has “different terms of employment”, while the Malaysians are hired on a permanent basis.

I am not surprised that PRC Chinese workers are unhappy with such differing wage conditions as it makes them feel lousy and cheap.

Why have two differing sets of work conditions and payment when the duties are almost similar?

I have also heard of a MNC who has sacked all their 100-strong PRC Chinese workers last year when they decided to stage a strike  inside the plant.

Another SME I knew  has to improve the wages of their PRC workers when the same wage difference dispute was brought up to the management.

Hopefullyy, with the illegal strike behind us, MOM will really work on the finer details of the Employment Act and if possible even comes up with a minimum wage for low-wage workers.

With a minimum wage, no one will be unhappy as everyone will be paid the same kind of wages and benefits.

There is no classification by nationality when it comes to wages.

Right now, employers can pay someone he likes higher wahes than the other  both of them perform the same kind of work duties.

5. Set up an independent Ombudsman

I have all along advocate for the setting up of an independent ombudsman to arbitrate for the needs of a fast-changing workforce.

The current tripartite movement has served its purpose well for the past two decades and now we have close to two million foreigners working alongside with us.

The PRC Chinese strike is a vivid example of the mismatched expectations from our foreign counterparts.

Long brought up to fight for their own rights in China, it is difficult for them to arbirtate on the side of submission for the greater good of a united workforce in a foreign land.

Its timely that our government looks into the setting up of an independent ombudsman that is free from the claws of the employers and government.

It is clear that NTUC and it’s unions have gone past their effectiveness stage especially when more than 1/3 of our workers are foreign with different needs and aspirations.

More than 140,000 foreign workers have became union members but its unsure how many have seeked assistance from their unions for employment-related concerns.

Many union chiefs are also employed by the companies they represent and could hardly be seen as impartial when they arbitrate for the rights of the workers.

Though we now have the TAFEP (Fair Employment Act), it is also funded by the Singapore National Employment Federation and NTUC and can hardly be seen as an effective  independent arbitration body.

It is merely a toothless watchdog that employers try to please as and when they wish.

An independent ombudsman can be funded by the government but left to perform its duties independently without having to address the concerns of the employers or government.

If developed countries can function properly with proper unions and ombudsman, I don’t see why Singapore can’t follow the same model.

 Written by: Gilbert Goh

Reader Feedback

14 Responses to “5 Lessons to Learn from the PRC Chinese SMRT Strike”

  1. Anon says:

    PAP will charge 4 or 5 of them for illegal strike and jail them 3 months and then deport them. They will do this in order to show an example and to make the rest scared to do another strike.

    PAPies are now scared shitless for what this strike means to the 2 million foreigners. PAPies are run by bookworm scholars and yes men and yes women — they think everyone who comes into S’pore will obey law and behave like Sinkies.

    Frankly if there is a 100,000 foreigners striking, you can be damn sure PAPies will overhaul the entire employment act and laws & regulations to make S’pore more similar to other developed countries like Australia, US, UK, Canada, Norway, Sweden etc.

    • J Y says:

      To arrest a few is like “杀鸡给猴看” or “杀一儆百”. This means “to kill a chicken in order to warn the monkey” or “to kill one man in order to warn the other 100 men”.

      But the onus is why can’t the HR prevent it from happening after complaints were made to them previously? Why is the management slow in taking actions to address their concerns?

      Almost all the bosses think that if you are not happy, you are free to go. They won’t try to make things better for you. The situation may be even worse after you complain because of political reasons.

      Hence, our society is called “most emotionless” in the world.

  2. [...] fault, not the PRC drivers – Support Site for The Unemployed & Underemployed: 5 Lessons to Learn from the PRC Chinese SMRT Strike – 八千三十夕阳: 巴士车长非法罢驶 – Sgpolitics.net: SDP: Time to [...]

  3. jj@39 says:

    The strike wasn’t a big scale type, it was put down fast without much resistance.
    PAP & these stingy employers won’t learn the lessons. They will kept on exploit the local & foreign workers.

  4. Anon says:

    It is very interesting to note the difference in outward PAP attitudes during the 1986 strike and this 2012 strike. Back in 1986, Ong Teng Cheong sanctioned the last “legal” strike in Singapore. But he did so without getting the approval of the Cabinet, especially from LKY.

    The 1986 strike also lasted for only 2 days, and the management quickly gave in to the workers’ demands for union representation and fairer work benefits. OTC later said that the fact that mgmt gave in so fast showed that the workers’ grievances were real and that the company just wanted to screw the workers.

    Even though the PAPies were furious at OTC, but in front of the public, the govt pretended they all approved of the strike. The state propaganda Straits Times published article after article for the next few days & weeks telling companies and employers to better wake up and to give workers a fair deal and salaries.

    Companies at that time, including all the big American, British, and Japanese MNCs were shocked. Their CEOs all personally called up LKY and MTI minister and asked what the fuck is happening. But at least the govt at that time decided to stand firm and present a united front. Companies all got no choice but to relook their employment practices and the period from 1986 to 1996 saw among the best times for Sinkie workers, with good salaries and better benefits. Graduates from polys and unis who came out to the workforce during that period benefited the most with high starting salaries.

    Contrast the above with 2012 strike. The state propaganda machine is in full blast condemning the 2-day strike. Although those cheena workers broke the law, frankly the police should have also arrested the senior management including the HR director of SMRT for instigating workers unhappiness and ultimately causing this strike in the 1st place.

    No other developed 1st world country has laws that give companies and employers so much power over workers, and to treat workers like machines fit only to produce GDP & profits.

    Today, workers’ rights have become worse than in 1986. SMRT discouraged their foreign staff from joining unions and did not tell them how to join unions etc. Anyway ALL the unions today are useless, merely sucking up workers’ meager salaries to benefit the unions management.

    If ALL Sinkies got the guts to cancel their union memberships, you can bet your ass that Ntuc will wake up and do some real changes within their sycophant ranks. Frankly I feel that Sinkies are stupid to continue paying hundreds of dollars every year to useless unions that cannot and will not protect you.

  5. Anon says:

    It is very interesting to note the difference in outward PAP attitudes during the 1986 strike and this 2012 strike. Back in 1986, Ong Teng Cheong sanctioned the last “legal” strike in Singapore. But he did so without getting the approval of the Cabinet, especially from LKY.

    The 1986 strike also lasted for only 2 days, and the management quickly gave in to the workers’ demands for union representation and fairer work benefits. OTC later said that the fact that mgmt gave in so fast showed that the workers’ grievances were real and that the company just wanted to screw the workers.

    Even though the PAPies were furious at OTC, but in front of the public, the govt pretended they all approved of the strike. The state propaganda Straits Times published article after article for the next few days & weeks telling companies and employers to better wake up and to give workers a fair deal and salaries.

    Companies at that time, including all the big American, British, and Japanese MNCs were shocked. Their CEOs all personally called up LKY and MTI minister and asked what the fuck is happening. But at least the govt at that time decided to stand firm and present a united front. Companies all got no choice but to relook their employment practices and the period from 1986 to 1996 saw among the best times for Sinkie workers, with good salaries and better benefits. Graduates from polys and unis who came out to the workforce during that period benefited the most with high starting salaries.

  6. Anon says:

    Contrast the above with 2012 strike. The state propaganda machine is in full blast condemning the 2-day strike. Although those cheena workers broke the law, frankly the police should have also arrested the senior management including the HR director of SMRT for instigating workers unhappiness and ultimately causing this strike in the 1st place.

    No other developed 1st world country has laws that give companies and employers so much power over workers, and to treat workers like machines fit only to produce GDP & profits.

    Today, workers’ rights have become worse than in 1986. SMRT discouraged their foreign staff from joining unions and did not tell them how to join unions etc. Anyway ALL the unions today are useless, merely sucking up workers’ meager salaries to benefit the unions management.

    If ALL Sinkies got the guts to cancel their union memberships, you can bet your ass that Ntuc will wake up and do some real changes within their sycophant ranks. Frankly I feel that Sinkies are stupid to continue paying hundreds of dollars every year to useless unions that cannot and will not protect you.

  7. jj@39 says:

    i have already cancelled my ntuc membership.

    • Seraphim says:

      Hey jj,

      This may sound silly from me, but… how do u cancel it?
      Cuz I intend to cancel mine as well… Doing nothing for me, but paying paying and paying for it…

      • jj@39 says:

        i went to NTUC Centre at One Marina Boulevard, 1 Marina Boulevard, waliking distance from Raffles Place station to cancel it.

      • Anon says:

        For me it was straightforward.

        I simply logged onto internet banking and canceled the Giro for the monthly union fees. No money means no membership. Moreover you still get to enjoy about 2 months of whatever miserable union “benefits” before they finally kick you out.

        In the old days, the biggest benefit of union membership is the subsidies you can get for pursuing part-time diploma or degree courses. But now with the legs-open mass import of foreigners with all sorts of degrees (even some peenoi maids and F&B waitresses are degree-holders), having a degree especially from part-time course is definitely no longer advantageous.

  8. Al says:

    If all or a 20 to 30% of FT goes on strike it will cripple the economy & lost the investors confidence. The incidence of PRC on strilke is a typical example of workers bringing up their concerns but the HR can’t do anything & said “sori we can’t do anything about it bec its the top management decision” (these words is very common here but to the PRC they r not satisfied, what’s more if they go to unions the unions also can’t do much for them, hence the PRC in the end resort to strike. If this case goes unresolved it will spell disaster here in the near future, so has our gahmen/employers learnt a lesson from this incidence — i doubt so! cause everything will go back to square one again & again becoming vicious cycle till the whole system break down (juz like the train breakdown in last december) then only they wake up — by then only COI …signed..what goes around comes around.

  9. sal says:

    It will be another SOP….these guys will be wack as scapegoats to warn others not to do the same things. But actually in common sense they are fighting for their rights, comparing 2 bus drivers doing the same jobs….why 1 get higher salary than the other. Same to any job especially in the service industries….Spore need to revise its salary structure if not similar things will happen in the future.

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