Thursday, November 29, 2012

Singapore : Zero Tolerance for Strikes.......

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.  


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"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.

213 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Don’t you agree that 8 to 10 persons in a room are too crowded?
Anon 3/12/12 19:13

It depends on:

1. How big is the room.
2. Whether there are windows and fans in the room.
3. How many people in the room at any one time.
4. Is there a lounge outside their room.

Anonymous said...

“what would you have done? Increase the pay of the PRC drivers to higher than that of Malaysians and Singaporeans? What would the Malaysian or Singaporean drivers feel?” Anon. 3/12/12 15:54

Wednesday, 28 Nov 2012 page A6 The Straits Times
“The trouble at SMRT apparently started after its bus drivers from China received their payslips last Friday. It confirmed that they had not got any pay increase in the latest salary adjustment. There were already murmurs of discontent last month, after SMRT put up a notice in the Woodlands dormitory that explained its latest salary increment. That notice stated that foreign drivers would get a $50 increment – but this raised excluded Chinese nationals……………..”

No one is asking SMRT to increase the pay of the PRC drivers to higher than that of Malaysians and Singaporeans. We all know that Singapore drivers are getting much higher pay than foreign drivers. What the Chinese drivers are asking is to have greater parity with Malaysian drivers.

Anonymous said...

First have you seen the room? Its not the size of a HDB flat bedroom. The room is quite big. And there are few tables in the room as well. Its bigger than a hostel I go for backpacking. And I've mentioned earlier, their key complaint is the pay, not the accommodation. The accommodation is acceptable. As a student, I've stayed in such accommodation before. Of course some of you live in luxury and cry so poor thing ar! so poor thing ah! But I think it is acceptable accommodation. And please, they went on strike and why is everyone so happy to point fingers? Surely the FIRST thing that comes to everyone's mind is how to solve the problem? And has SMRT solved the problem properly? Is there MAJOR DISRUPTION in service? No right? And so, why is everyone so eager to cast blame? I think SMRT has done a respectable job solving the problem and services are back to normal. There is no such thing as perfection. It is a hiccup and it is solved. And surely your life is not perfect? So what I'm trying to say is, SMRT has done a decent job solving the problem of the strike. Things are back to normal. No major disruption and they have found some other drivers to take the place of the PRC workers. So cut people some slack. And when a problem happens, think about the solution first. Not point fingers first. And whether the solution is acceptable.

Anonymous said...

And I know none here who have been complaining and complaining has ever run a company before. And I've across employees who just suddenly don't report to work. The first thing you guys will say is, oh must be you you you the evil employers fault who never pay the employee properly. Its not that straightforward. Sometimes, some employess just have a poor attitude, they just don't report to work and want to see you scramble. And they know, they can USE netizens against the employers because netizens don't check facts, PAP must be wrong, Companies must be wrong, GLCs must be wrong. In the case of PRCs, they actually sent a notice saying that they know they will win because Singaporeans will have a furore. We play to their hands. I'm glad SMRT have backbone and did not play to netizen's demands to increase the pay to match that of Malaysians and Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

“The room is quite big. And there are few tables in the room as well. Its bigger than a hostel I go for backpacking. And I've mentioned earlier, their key complaint is the pay, not the accommodation. The accommodation is acceptable. As a student, I've stayed in such accommodation before. Of course some of you live in luxury and cry so poor thing ar! so poor thing ah! But I think it is acceptable accommodation.” Anon. 3/12/12 21:01

In an interview with Yahoo! Singapore earlier this week, a female bus driver from China who declined to be named had highlighted the poor living conditions.

"They may say that we are given accommodation, but have you seen the accommodation they give us? It isn't fit for humans," she said in Mandarin. "Eight of us share a room, and there isn't any walking space between our beds. I've also been bitten by rats and insects on multiple occasions before."

Anonymous said...

“And they know, they can USE netizens against the employers because netizens don't check facts, PAP must be wrong, Companies must be wrong, GLCs must be wrong.” Anon. 3/12/12 21:06

In the past, Singaporeans trusted their leaders and believe everything reported (no matter how bias and absurd) in the mainstream media.

But ever since our leaders start to peg their pay (and hence their performance) to the income of top Singaporean earners, it is their interest to see the rich getting richer and consequently ordinary Singaporeans getting poorer and the huge income inequality.

Now, PAP has lost its’ credibility, and people no longer trust our leaders and everything reported in the mainstream media will be viewed with suspicious.

Anonymous said...

“the Malaysians have better driving skills or language skills etc., therefore they are paid marginally better.”
Anon. 2/12/12 09:01

You call it marginally better?
Based on the increment, Malaysian drivers got $150 but Chinese drivers got only 75$, it is a 100% better.
Then for the pay adjustment Malaysian got $50 but Chinese got nothing.

Anonymous said...

“Yes, a bunch of workers go on strike because they want to be paid as high as their more capable colleagues. Like that also blame government?” Anon. 2/12/12 15:57

All the Malaysian drivers got an increment of $150 but the Chinese got only $75.
All the Malaysian drivers got an adjustment of $50 but the Chinese got nothing.

Cannot be all the 171 Chinese drivers are less capable than the Malaysian drivers.

Likewise cannot be all the Malaysian drivers are more capable than the Chinese drivers.

Anonymous said...

It would seem the credibility of all PAP linked media and companies are fast evaporating.

Anonymous said...

//And has SMRT solved the problem properly? Is there MAJOR DISRUPTION in service? No right? And so, why is everyone so eager to cast blame? I think SMRT has done a respectable job solving the problem and services are back to normal.//
Anon. 3/12/12 21:01

Get the police to arrest and charge 4 of the drives and do not allow them to go on bail, send another driver to jail and fired another 29 drivers and send them back to China. You consider this as problem solved? And you think that SMRT has done a respectable job?

Anonymous said...

Is PRC drivers the problem?
Or is it SMRT that is the real problem?

kambing said...

u right..

bus butterworth said...

This is what I have been searching in many websites and I finally found it here. Amazing article. I am so impressed. Could never think of such a thing is possible with it...I think you have a great knowledge especially while dealings with such subjects.

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