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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.
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, , [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, , [t].||2,340||euros||26%||38.5|
|Norway average income||PPP $ 1,909||$ 2,633||Employees, 2005. Statistics Norway, .||22,655||kroners||25%||37.5|
|Korea average salary||PPP $ 1,845||$ 1,463||Excl. overtime and bonus, June 2005. Korea Ministry of Labour, .||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, .||1,320||euros||0%|
|UK median salary||PPP $ 1,650||$ 1,914||Employees, 2005. UK Employment Department, , [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, , [k], [t].||2,074||euros||27%||39.9|
|Canada average income||PPP $ 1,595||$ 1,594||Employees, 2005. Statistics Canada, , [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), , [t].||1,553||euros||25%||40.0|
|Italy average salary||PPP $ 1,250||$ 1,350||Normal hours of work, 2005. Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, .||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, .||19,499||dollars||5%||43.0|
|Czech Republic average income||PPP $ 949||$ 620||Excl. bonuses, 2005. Czech Statistical Office, .||19,758||korunas||25%||43.3|
|Slovakia average income||PPP $ 884||$ 455||Employees, 2004. Štatistický úrad Slovenskej republiky, , [k].||18,194||korunas||22%||34.4|
|Hungary average salary||PPP $ 805||$ 511||Employees, May 2005. Hungarian Central Statistical Office, , [k].||149,464||forints||32%|
|Latvia average income||PPP $ 790||$ 351||Adult full-time and part-time employees, 2005. Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, , [t].||272||lats||28%||42.3|
|Poland average income||PPP $ 762||$ 408||Employees, 2004. Poland Central Statistical Office, , [k].||2,055||zlotys||30%||40.0|
|Brazil average income||PPP $ 762||$ 306||Employees, Dec 2004. Ministerio do Trabalho e da Previdência Social, .||964||reals||10%||42.5|
|Portugal average salary||PPP $ 755||$ 605||Employees, 2003. Instituto Nacional de Estatística, .||579||euros||13%||39.8|
|Singapore average salary||PPP $ 659||$ 604||Employees, private sector, 2004. Ministry of Manpower, , [t].||1,239||dollars||20%|
|Philippines average salary||PPP $ 657||$ 146||Employees, 2004. National Statistics Office, , [t].||8,802||pesos||10%|
|Mexico average income||PPP $ 609||$ 389||Employees, 2005. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informatica (INEGI), , [k].||4,322||pesos||2%||64.0|
|Russia average salary||PPP $ 606||$ 242||Employees, 2004. Federal State Statistics Office, .||7,789||roubles||13%||40.0|
|Lithuania average salary||PPP $ 578||$ 220||Employees, 2002. Statistics Lithuania, .||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, , [t], [s].||7,654||bahts||6%||53.0|
|China average salary||PPP $ 520||$ 122||Bus conductor. Employees, 2005. National Bureau of Statistics of China, .||1,083||yuans||8%|
|Romania average salary||PPP $ 424||$ 217||Men employees, 2005. Romania National Institute of Statistics, .||883||new lei||29%||38.8|
|Kuwait average income||PPP $ 359||$ 448||Men employees, 2004. Kuwait Ministry of Planning, .||128||dinars||0%||31.0|
|Peru average salary||PPP $ 325||$ 140||Employees, June 2002. Men only. Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informatica, .||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