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 GohNumber of View: 2522