UPDATE: I was going through the comments and saw a few that claimed that I'm mistaken that these drivers are not allowed to go on strike as "essential services" workers. All they need to do is give 14 days notice then go on strike. Are you really so naive to think so? 14 days is enough for the authorities to round the instigators up under other sections of the law before any strike can take place - and there are many other parts of the law they can use to do this.
The term "essential services" cover a broad range of industries [Link] include telcos, postal services...even the refused collector and weatherman are providing an "essential service" based on the legal definition.
"Taking the law into your own hands is not acceptable under any circumstances - certainly especially when it involves essential services." - Tan Chuan Jin[Link]
I have encountered quite a few strikes overseas. Once I was in Greece and all the public transport workers went on strike and I had to walk 5 kilometers carrying a backpack to catch a ferry. I've seen strikes at airports when baggage handlers stopped work and baggages pile up at the airport and planes can't take off. Once I was in a US city where all the janitors (cleaners) went on strike - you really understand how important cleaners are when toilets start to stink. The strike by janitors appeared justified - many were fed up because they were not paid by employers, some were non-documented immigrants bullied by employers who knew they were too afraid to go to authorities, authorities ignored the plight of these workers for years. Within 1 week, with toilets all over the city started to get unbearably smelly, the authroities gave in and promised to go after errant employers.
In Singapore, strikes are illegal unless sanctioned by the minister in charge of the union. The last minister to sanction a strike was late President Ong Teng Cheong in 1986. He did so without seeking the opinion of his colleagues because he knew that they would stop him[Link]. Quite incredibly there were no reported strikes since 1986, a gap of 26 years, until 2 days ago when a group of 102 PRC bus drivers decided not to report for work when they found out they were not given the same pay increment as Malaysian bus drivers. They were also unhappy with living conditions - 10 people to a room and a stealth pay cut when overtime hours were incorporated into regular working hours. I think I'll leave it to SMRT to explain themselves for what appears to be really unfair and unequal treatment of their workers. Whatever your opinion of the foreign labor policy, I think most people agree that once we take them into our workforce we have to treat foreigners fairly...if we allow foreigners to be exploited, it will ultimately hurt Singaporeans in the workforce because employers habitually exploit foreign workers will do the same to Singaporeans. It is ironic that the PAP govt urges Singaporeans to integrate with foreigners but SMRT, a GLC, doesn't appear to treat its foreign employees fairly .
Workers don't go on strike because it is illegal and no PAP minister today will sanction one. For many workers if they are not happy with the work conditions, they will just quit and try to find another job. A few years ago I posted about how the extremely poor contractual terms for low wage workers especially cleaners[Link] had become widespread in May 2007. It took about 5 years before the mainstream media started discussing this problem[March 2012 Undercutting, bad contracts depress cleaners' pay] and for unions to call for fairer standardized clauses for cleaners. It was only late this year that they received some improvement in their wages after suffering more than a decade of declining wages[Link].
While strikes are not a good thing, they are sometimes necessary. Having no strikes for 26 years does not reflect healthy industrial relations but a lopsided one. Workers sometimes keep silent about frustrating unhappy situations as they feel the system works against them and they have little power to change it. Employers can behave any way they want so long as they don't do anything illegal. They can cut pay, extend working hours, cancel your benefits, retrench workers with little compensation and practise ageism. It is sometimes argued that the less rights workers have, the more investments will come to Singapore to create jobs for Singaporeans. But raising the quality of life is not about jobs alone.
In many countries, the right to go on strike is recognised and some countries even have it in their enshrined in their constitutions. This is one of the rights Singaporeans traded away for overall economic gain. Perhaps we had it good for a while in the 80s and early 90s when jobs were abundant, workers were treasured because the labor market was tight, and businesses compete for workers by paying and treating them well. The 'happy' problem for workers in the 80s and 90s was job-hopping and that kept employers on their toes to ensure working conditions are good and workers are well paid. This situation changed when the PAP govt opened the floodgaes to foreign labor....we start the see the transition from a situation in which workers are treasured to a "hire-fire" and "cheaper is better" situation for workers. Things started to deteriorate fast for low wage workers and older workers....and these workers can't do anything about it because their power and rights have already been taken away.
When I was a kid, my neighbor was a bus driver. Today, the bus companies like to use this lofty term "bus captain" instead of the more humble "bus driver". But the bus driver of the 80s makes a decent living and the "bus captain" today struggle to make ends meet. My neighbor raised a family with 6 kids and owned HDB flat on his bus driver's salary. He had 6 kids because he wanted a boy and the first 5 children were girls. You look at how those drivers who went on strike were housed - 10 to a room in the dorm - and the low wages they were paid. It just pulls down what the bus companies will offer for local drivers. Bus companies complained that they need more foreigner drivers because they were not willing to pay wages adjusted for the high and rising cost of living in Singapore. Things are so bad at SMRT, even workers from a developing world country can't accept the way they are managed and went on strike. If these workers are seen as providing important essential services and will never be allowed to strike, why aren't they paid well to ensure the availability of these services - the 2 former generals from SAF, one in charge of the manpower, the other CEO of SMRT should know better...we don't pay our SAF regulars peanuts like we do our drivers.
Just last year, SMRT reported the highest profits in its history and its former CEO Saw was the highest paid SMRT CEO in history. The wealth transfer from low wage Singaporeans workers to business owners and higher management as a consequence of PAP foreign labor policy is clearly seen here.
Minister Tan Chuan Jin said that the PRC bus drivers have "crossed the line". Let us not forget that it is the PAP govt that shifted this line....and the strike action by these drivers remind us how Singapore workers have been disempowered and stripped of their rights. While some segments of our society are critical of the strike action by these drivers, we have to remember how Singaporeans have been conditioned to simply accept what is unfair and unjust simply because we cannot change it and our pro-business govt will come down hard on disobedience to make examples of those who try to initiate change. What the drivers have done is what people else where in many democratic developed countries would have done if faced with the same level of discrimination. The only difference is the PAP govt has made such action illegal when it is a basic right in many other countries.
The PAP govt has stepped forward to say they have "zero tolerance" for the strike action[Link]. We never hear the PAP leaders talk about "zero tolerance" for exploitation of low wage workers, "zero tolerance" for unfairness at workplace, "zero tolerance" for low wages and poor benefits..."zero tolerance" for poor treatment of elderly workers. The PAP govt has great tolerance for inequality that has emerged in our society. But they have "zero tolerance" for those who are brave enough to stand up against injustice. Singaporean workers gave up their rights for benefits that never materialised ....we should have "zero tolerance" for such an unfair and unjust situation.