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Saturday January 13th 2018

Aftermath of PRC Chinese SMRT Strike – Who is to be Blamed?

Latest: 5th PRC Chinese driver charged  sentenced to 6 weeks’ jail.

As the dust settled for the first illegal  industrial strike here   in 26 years – ironically conducted by foreign workers – Singaporeans are left wondering if there will be any changes to the overall manpower legislation here.

Quietly, some Singaporeans have admired the guts and resolve of the PRC Chinese workers who have stood  up for their rights and justice -  abeit  illegally.

More than one million foreigners are on our shore now plying their trade from low-end F & B workers to high-level senior executives working in top corporations.

Many who came here with the coveted work permits may even have travel out of their homes for the first time and arrive eager-eyed and ready to be exploited by our unscrupulous employers.

Some quickly finished their contract and returned to their home land never ever dare to venture out of their countries again as the work  here is tortuous and conditions appalling.

Many also paid over-the-top commission to their agents  preventing them from terminating their contracts prematurely or else they will be incurring a loss when they return home as many borrowed money to pay the agents.

Its a lucrative human trafficking trade of which our government indirectly has a hand in supporting.


Top on most people’s mind will be whether our government will slowly remove the employers’ sole dependence on cheap foreign labour to man our essential  service industries.

The transport strike has crippled a part of the overall bus route which inconvenienced many people during the two-day strike.

Many Singaporeans are concerned if the strike is conducted by tens of thousands of healthcare workers manning essential services at hospitals and nursing homes – the consequences will have deadly devastating  effect.

The illegal strike has also demonstrated that it is not easy to manage the expectations of our foreign workers as culturally they are very different from us.

What is acceptable to us may not be so for our foreign workers.

Two other groups of  PRC Chinese workers have also conducted two stand-off at MOM building last year – mostly over pay dispute with their employers but none was arrested and charged.

The illegal industrial strike has brought their discontentment to another higher  notch which forces the ministry to act accordingly. 

Over-dependence on cheap exploited foreign labour?

Most of the PRC Chinese workers  are also very united and if unity is strength, it is vividly demonstrated through the illegal strike as 171 PRC Chinese bus captains decided to take the law into their own hands.

An industrial strike is the workers’ most powerful instrument and many employers are afraid of having to contain a massive strike targetted at the management as it makes the company looks very bad.

This is probably why our government has criminalise an illegal strike which carries a fine or jail sentence of not more than 12 months.

Moreover, without cheap foreign labour, many labour-intensive businesses such as the F & B sector will have to close down or survive  by hiring local workers which will cost more in terms of wages resulting in costlier food prices.

Anyway, without costly local labour, the restaurants and cafes have being charging exorbitant food prices all along.

I visited a Swensen Restaurant recently which predominantly hired Filipino workers and was shocked to see at least a 15% increase in most food prices since I last visited them six months ago.

By continuing to allow our employers to bring in cheap third world workers, our government is seen as perpetuating exploitation at the labour front as most foreign workers work long hours with low-end wages.

More signficantly, they are also not very productive and employers are slow to improve productivity if they can bring in additional cheap foreign  labour to do the job.

Most never earn more than $1000 a month in basic wages working in the F & B industry and they often slog up more than 10 hours a day with no over-time pay.

The cleaning, F & B, construction, manufacturing  and other sectors which require alot of labour are mainly staffed with foreign workers making it difficult for them to wean off the dependency in the short-term.

Its best for such labour-intensive industries to pack and go if they could not innovate and reduce their dependency on cheap foreign labour.

Many F & B industries also try to beat the system by hiring only PR workers as they tend to agree with the terms and conditions of the employers given to  foreign workers.

Our government should not be seen as aiding employers to make more money at the expense of the country’s over-taxed infrastructure and future economic growth.

Who is to be blamed?

As for the PRC Chinese SMRT saga, fingers have already started to point mainly at SMRT for being too slow in responding to the brewing discontentment at the difference in wages and shoddy housing conditions at the dormatories.

The main grouse seems to be the difference in basic wages among nationalities – PRC Chinese earns $1000, Malaysian $1400 and Singaporeans $1600.

Its still a mystery why SMRT decides to pay it’s workers according to nationalities -  its plain discrimination and this has to  be the first thing that the management should look into.

Moreover, how can a Singaporean survive on $1600 a month and even lesser after CPF deduction?

Can the SMRT pay  better wages so that more local Singaporeans can take up the job of bus captains reducing our  dependence on cheap foreign labour?

In Australia, the basic wage of a bus driver is A$3800 before tax and  drivers are mostly  citizens as its considered  a essential service job.

Australia also has  the world’s highest paid bus driver in the world though they work a hectic 46 hours a week.

Australia also has a minimum wage of $15 per hour and its illegal if you pay a worker below that wage level.

According to the international bus driver average salary chart  below, the average bus driver pay for Singaporeans was  $1239  – way back in 2004.

Our bus driver’s pay for local drivers has climbed up to around $1600 now.

The world’s bus driver average salary income comparison is attached below:-

Bus Driver Job Average Salary

Country  Net Monthly Income  constant 2005 US$ [a] [d] Notes, Source                                                                               Gross Monthly Job Income Compulsory Deductions Weekly Hours
Australia average income PPP $ 2,382 $ 2,338 May 2004. Normal hours from collective agreements. Australian Bureau of Statistics, [9], [t]. 3,851 dollars 20% 46.3
Germany average salary PPP $ 1,997 $ 2,156 Minimum per month, 2005, normal hours of work. Federal Statistical Office of Germany, [9], [t]. 2,340 euros 26% 38.5
Norway average income PPP $ 1,909 $ 2,633 Employees, 2005. Statistics Norway, [9]. 22,655 kroners 25% 37.5
Korea average salary PPP $ 1,845 $ 1,463 Excl. overtime and bonus, June 2005. Korea Ministry of Labour, [9]. 1,621,837 wons 8% 39.3
France median salary PPP $ 1,725 $ 1,355 Full-time employees, 2002. Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques, [36]. 1,320 euros 0%
UK median salary PPP $ 1,650 $ 1,914 Employees, 2005. UK Employment Department, [9], [t]. 1,365 pounds 23% 39.0
Finland average salary PPP $ 1,624 $ 1,939 Normal hours of work, 2004. Men only. Women make 2,073 euros per month. Statistics Finland, [9], [k], [t]. 2,074 euros 27% 39.9
Canada average income PPP $ 1,595 $ 1,594 Employees, 2005. Statistics Canada, [9], [t]. 2,573 dollars 25% 32.1
U.S. average salary PPP $ 1,594 $ 1,594 Full-time and part-time employees, 2005. U.S. Department of Labor, [t]. 1,898 dollars 16% 29.4
Austria average salary PPP $ 1,445 $ 1,151 Employees, 2001. Austrian Central Statistical Office (ÖSTAT), [9], [t]. 1,553 euros 25% 40.0
Italy average salary PPP $ 1,250 $ 1,350 Normal hours of work, 2005. Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, [9]. 1,445 euros 25% 39.0
Taiwan average income PPP $ 1,067 $ 571 Full-time and part-time employees, 2004. National Statistics Republic of China, [9]. 19,499 dollars 5% 43.0
Czech Republic average income PPP $ 949 $ 620 Excl. bonuses, 2005. Czech Statistical Office, [9]. 19,758 korunas 25% 43.3
Slovakia average income PPP $ 884 $ 455 Employees, 2004. Štatistický úrad Slovenskej republiky, [9], [k]. 18,194 korunas 22% 34.4
Hungary average salary PPP $ 805 $ 511 Employees, May 2005. Hungarian Central Statistical Office, [9], [k]. 149,464 forints 32%
Latvia average income PPP $ 790 $ 351 Adult full-time and part-time employees, 2005. Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, [9], [t]. 272 lats 28% 42.3
Poland average income PPP $ 762 $ 408 Employees, 2004. Poland Central Statistical Office, [9], [k]. 2,055 zlotys 30% 40.0
Brazil average income PPP $ 762 $ 306 Employees, Dec 2004. Ministerio do Trabalho e da Previdência Social, [9]. 964 reals 10% 42.5
Portugal average salary PPP $ 755 $ 605 Employees, 2003. Instituto Nacional de Estatística, [9]. 579 euros 13% 39.8
Singapore average salary PPP $ 659 $ 604 Employees, private sector, 2004. Ministry of Manpower, [9], [t]. 1,239 dollars 20%
Philippines average salary PPP $ 657 $ 146 Employees, 2004. National Statistics Office, [9], [t]. 8,802 pesos 10%
Mexico average income PPP $ 609 $ 389 Employees, 2005. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informatica (INEGI), [9], [k]. 4,322 pesos 2% 64.0
Russia average salary PPP $ 606 $ 242 Employees, 2004. Federal State Statistics Office, [9]. 7,789 roubles 13% 40.0
Lithuania average salary PPP $ 578 $ 220 Employees, 2002. Statistics Lithuania, [9]. 1,014 litas 27% 39.4
Thailand average salary PPP $ 561 $ 179 Men employees, 2005. Women make 6,799 bahts per month. Thailand National Statistical Office, [9], [t], [s]. 7,654 bahts 6% 53.0
China average salary PPP $ 520 $ 122 Bus conductor. Employees, 2005. National Bureau of Statistics of China, [9]. 1,083 yuans 8%
Romania average salary PPP $ 424 $ 217 Men employees, 2005. Romania National Institute of Statistics, [9]. 883 new lei 29% 38.8
Kuwait average income PPP $ 359 $ 448 Men employees, 2004. Kuwait Ministry of Planning, [9]. 128 dinars 0% 31.0
Peru average salary PPP $ 325 $ 140 Employees, June 2002. Men only. Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informatica, [9]. 489 sols 11% 31.9

NTUC not doing much to help workers

Moreover, the fact that none of the SMRT PRC Chinese workers belonged to any unions suggested that the tripartite movement has lost its flavour – not only with the workers but more significantly with  the companies also.

NTUC is often seen as just another pro-government movement of which the unions are mere puppets – without any power to arbitrate effectively for the workers.

11% of our foreign workers and about 30% of our local workers are NTUC members – but how effective has the tripartite movement being all along?

NTUC is seen more like a fun club whereby you join to enjoy rebates at shopping malls and chalets.

There is nothing to suggest that they will fight for you as a union if you have a labour dispute with the employers.

Many who went to talk with their unions are often persuaded to drop their cases and abide with the employers’ terms  to stay in the job.

Ask any Singaporeans about their opinion on NTUC and they will shake their head at our tripartite movement – ironically  long hailed by the government as being the main catalyst at restoring labour harmony for the past few decades.

The tripartite movent has benefitted only the employers and our government – but not for the workers who often suffer in silence at labour injustice.

Many workers now simply try their best to accept whatever unjustified treatment meted out by their companies or they just walk away and seek employment elsewhere.

The worse is our government has allowed such unjust employment behaviour to persist even though they have heard thosuands of cases from victimised locals and foreign workers over the past few years.

Government seen as allowing exploitation of cheap foreign labour

A few years ago, we may have heard of the mistreatment of  a few hundred Indian workers who paid about $8000 per worker to come here and work only to find themelves caged up in containers as employers only want to keep their share of the $8000 fee paid by their counterpart in India.

Though such massive foreign worker exploitation fraud is unheard of again, other forms of labour mistreatment happens almost on a daily basis.

Our economy has grew by leaps and bounds but our employment legislation remains third-world at best.

I have received  employment contracts with ridiculous terms and conditions  from enraged employees who felt that they have nowhere to turn to for advice and solace.

One even has to pay back six months of her monthly salary if she resigned within the 3-year employment contract!

We have assisted the executive to seek legal advice.

Many have seeked assistance from MOM or TAFEP but  came out feeling none the wiser.

A few was advised to approach lawyers to take up their cases as their income has breached the $4500 salary limit placed on aggrieved executives seeking assistance.

Many will not want to seek legal recourse for fear of publicity and emotional backlash and most employers know that they have the upper hand when it comes to unfair dismissal or unjust employment terms.

The current employment landscape also favours employers as they have many jobseekers knocking on their doors due to the government’s open-door policy.

Many also won’t approach NTUC even though they are members as they felt that the tripartite movement is too aligned with the employers and many don’t trust the unions for fear that they will jeopardise their career with their pro-employer negotiation.

Such employment malpractices not only affect the morale of low-end workers of which a majority of our foreign workers belong to but many  middle-level executives also as they have this sick feeling that they are always under the thumb of the employers.

Tweaking of ineffective tripartite movement

Our government must really look into tweaking the tripartite movement so that our local and foreign executives are better represented at the work place.

Our unions must be  seen to have more teeth when they represent their union members  in arbitration and not seen as a fun club  promoting their  discount card.

Words travel fast if our union members are unfairly represented and it is difficult to erase  bias mindset formed in the workers’ mind.

The PRC Chinese SMRT saga is a sure  sign that our workers need our management to listen to them and act accordingly.

A louder voice from the unions is also necessary so that the workers’ needs are better represented.

I am sure that the PRC Chinese workers have spoken to the management a few times about their grievances and deliberated over the next course of action they can take in order for them  to push their agenda further.

If this is Australia or even in China, their actions will be cordoned and permissible but unfortunately this is Singapore whereby industrial strike is illegal and  the right of the average worker is almost non-existent.

My fear is that the labour landscape here has evolved too much for the current tripartite movement to be relevant anymore.

Or do we need another illegal industrial strike for the government to take concrete action to improve manpower legislation?

Written by: Gilbert Goh

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Reader Feedback

6 Responses to “Aftermath of PRC Chinese SMRT Strike – Who is to be Blamed?”

  1. bogeh says:

    Our unions must be seen to have more teeth when they represent their uion members in arbitration. First they must find their dentures and then their balls.

  2. GiveUpOnSingapore says:

    Give Up On Singapore, do the best you can. Reach out to your fellow mate. PAP is replacing you to take in more obedient, Cheaper, Better, Faster new citizen. Lol…

  3. Mac says:

    Clearly SMRT is to blame. Wouldn’t fault anyone else. Heads should roll at SMRT as it is their discrimination which caused the strike. Sack the idiots!

  4. anon says:

    The only thing that will change becoz of this strike is that PAPies will make the laws even more impossible to have any “legal” strike.

    Don’t believe whatever crap the ministers and other PAPies say. Just look at their actions.

    It’s about time everyone cancels their useless union membership. Pure waste of money. Union member also die, non-union member also die.

    Better to use that few hundreds dollars each year to put into savings or to treat your family / parents.

  5. jj@39 says:

    As long as PAP is in power,don’t expect exploitation will ends or reduces. Really don’t know when PAP will becomes a non ruling party.

  6. Dave says:

    it shows a common decency these chinese prc workers have to voice out at the unjust treatment they received from the employers. This is a actually a common exploitative happening in the daily working world except this incident
    just further proves how gutless and pathetic our sinkies are
    in the eyes of the foreigner.

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