The recent strike action by a group of drivers drew many different responses from Singaporeans. Some quickly criticise the drivers for breaking the law ... never mind if the laws are just or unjust, they have to be followed. Others view the incident as a slap on the face for the PAP govt for its foreign talent policy as it involved a GLC and foreign workers - it is a real joke that the PAP govt has berated Singaporeans again and again for not integrating well with foreigners when its own GLC was not really treating its foreign employees well. Many Singaporeans accept that because bus transport is an essential service, the ability of workers in this sectors to undertake strike action has to be limited. Let me ask you, if these services are so essential that workers' basic rights have to be given up, why is it privatized? Privatization results in not just in service quality being trade-off for profits, there is constant pressure to make profits at the expense of service availability and safety. One point brought up by JiaJia's brother in the video (previous posting) is the poor living conditions results in PRC drivers not being well rested when they drive our public buses. A strike action by some drivers can result in inconvenience but the lack of rights of these drivers can led to low morale and safety issues.
Yesterday, a group of Hong Kong unionists protested at our consulate demanding we abolish some of the harsh labor laws and release jailed PRC drivers[Link]. As Singaporeans, we really do not like a bunch of unionists in Hong Kong telling us what to do and we can see this in the negative reactions of some netizens towards the Hong Kong protest. The authorities cannot be expected not to punish the PRC drivers once laws are broken regardless of whether we believe the laws are just. However, one thing we should ask ourselves is this. - many of us have been to Hong Kong and taken their public transport, the general feedback is that it is at least as good as Singapore's and they don't have to limit the rights of workers to achieve this outcome.
While the reactions of Singaporeans are mixed, if the strike action had taken place anywhere else in the developed world and even some developing countries where workers' rights are respected and human equality and fairness are not compromised, there will be overwhelming support for these drivers. Their living conditions are appalling in a 1st world country and as a group these drivers from PRC were discriminated against. After the strike we see the SMRT management on its toes, CEO Desmond Kwek visiting the dormitories, townhall meeting held with these drivers, living quarters were fumigated and a 24 hour hotline set up for these drivers. Other than a sit-in or strike, what else could have achieved the same change in management and brought the plight of these drivers to everyone's attention?
A few months ago, I took a cab and asked the cabby one of those "wrong questions". The cabby looked like he was in his fifties so I asked him if driving a cab was his "retirement job". He said it wasn't. He then told me his "sad story". The company he had worked for 20 years sacked him for "poor performance". He suspected his sacking was due to ageism as he recalled the same thing had happened to other older workers in the same company. There is an economic reason why companies do this. Workers are given increment every year to motivate them when the company does well. After many years with the company and many rounds of increment, the company finds it can hire a younger person for much cheaper so they sack their older workers although they are still performing. In the past the labor market was tight so companies were willing to "pay for loyalty" but these days they have a hire and fire mentality. The cabby thinking that he was a victim of ageism went to MOM. The officer assisting him at MOM told him there is little MOM can do to help him as such cases are difficult to prove and they told him that if he was still not happy, he should get a lawyer. The poor feller gave up and became a cabby.
Whether you believe his story fully or not(coincidentally Leong Sze Hian wrote an article on age discrimination in Singapore http://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/12/statistical-evidence-of-age-discrimination-against-older-workers/), what is true is workers who are unfairly treated have limited channels to make things right. Why is this so? As long as employers do not break the law, there is little employees can do to get employers the address the situation. Many things employers do can be unfair but legal like giving little or no retrenchment benefits when they layoff workers even though the company had many profitable years in the past and sitting on a pile of cash.
The main argument the PAP sold us to remove the power and independence of unions and rights of workers is that there will be overall economic gains for ordinary Singaporeans if employers can do what they want with workers - employers will be more willing to hire, and invest if there are no unions in the way of what they choose to do. One example of this argument is a company that runs into financial challenges can layoff workers without a union in the way to stay afloat thereby keeping the rest of the employees. By being as pro-business as possible, we were told we can attract investments, create jobs and have broad economic prosperity and overall benefits for Singaporeans ...most of whom are workers.
We are now a first world country and no other first world country has the type of labor laws, weak unions, lack of workers' rights as Singapore so it cannot be argued that Singapore needs to do this to remain competitive when none of our competitors has to do the same ...if our workers have indeed been shouldering the burden of competitiveness and are the true heroes of our economic success, then the lack of benefits for our old workers is even less acceptable and the excessive pay packages of the PAP elites even more appalling. The SMRT PRC bus drivers are the poorest paid bus drivers working in the developed world followed by the Malaysian bus drivers and Singaporean bus drivers in SMRT. Former CEO Saw was the highest paid CEO in SMRT's history. When she was CEO, SMRT frequently claimed that it was not able to hire Singaporean drivers because Singaporeans are not interest in becoming bus drivers. The truth is the pay for bus drivers is too low and nobody is interested in working a full time and still not able to adequately provide for his family. Saw like many other CEOs, and business owners like Douglas Foo lobbied the govt for cheap foreign labor. Without strong responsible independent unions to represent the interest of workers and level the playing field, their interests were unfairly traded off to benefit CEOs whose main motivation is increasing profits margins to get higher pay packages for themselves.
SMRT's labor problems is not a sudden one-off event. In Aug 2012, before the PRC driver's strike, Singaporean SMRT drivers expressed disappointment NTUC for not being able to fair deal when their work week was extended to 6 days. NTUC accepted the unfavorable proposal and the SMRT drivers were left in despair unable to do anything more about the situation[Link] - their pay was effectively cut even as the cost of living rose. The inability of workers to exercise what are seen else where is basic rights has lead to dire outcomes for our lower middle and low income workers. The result is a large income gap (2nd highest, at times highest) in the developed world. Hard working people like bus drivers (aka bus captains) see their incomes stagnant or falling to become the lowest paid drivers in the developed world while PAP leaders become the highest paid politicians in the world...says a lot about our system, this is not really meritocracy, people are not rewarded based on how much hard work they put in and contribute to society and the economy...it is where you stand in the unlevel playing field and your ability to influence the system to your advantage that matters. Workers, in particular, low wage workers, whose rights have been taken away and left without a strong independent voice stand on the lowest part of the unlevel playing field unable to climb up ....it is the system and not the lack of effort on their part that resulted in their plight.