Singapore Cracks Down on a Strike

Singapore last week came down hard on what began as a small, peaceful strike by a group of bus drivers, arresting five on criminal charges and unceremoniously deporting another 29 to China.

After the harsh action by the government, however, officials from the Manpower and Transport ministries, in press conferences last Saturday, said SMRT, one of two major transit companies on the island republic, could have managed the concerns of its workers better and added that the incident was a timely reminder for employers to look into their obligations to workers.

In addition to questions over the strike itself, however, the action also raised questions why foreign workers should be paid less than Singaporeans for doing the same work. SMRT employs some 400 Bus Drivers from China, amounting to roughly a third of total driver staff strength. The affair began on Nov. 26 when 171 drivers from SMRT, refused to work in the morning, assembling outside their dormitory in protest against what they said were poor living conditions and discrepancies in pay for drivers of different nationalities. Of those, 88 continued the strike on Tuesday.

Singaporean drivers are paid S$1,775 (S$1,455) per month. Malaysian nationals are paid S$1,400 and Chinese S$1,075. Singaporeans and Malaysians receive a bonus at the end of the year, while Chinese drivers receive a month’s bonus after the completion of their two-year contract.

Chinese drivers receive free lodging in dormitories, which partly compensates for the wage discrepancy, but the workers also complained of overcrowding and other shortcomings such as bedbug infestations. An investigation by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower found that the housekeeping in the dormitories were “below par” and that drivers working different shifts were often roomed together, making it difficult for workers to get any rest.

Previous strikes undertaken by migrant workers in the construction sector have passed relatively unnoticed, but this one involved a public transport company. With public transport deemed an “essential service” in Singapore, striking is outlawed by criminal law unless 14 days’ notice is given. The Chinese workers had not given any notice.

The strike was at first roundly condemned by the establishment. Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan Jin labelled it an “illegal strike” for which there would be “zero tolerance.” The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which has traditionally been regarded as a close ally of the government, in this case lived up to that impression. It agreed with Tan, sternly demanding that the workers be dealt with. The episode was quickly framed as a criminal action perpetuated by a group of workers who had deprived Singapore of an “essential service.”

Singaporeans also expressed disapproval of the drivers’ strike, saying that the workers should have negotiated with the company instead although it is difficult for workers to seek redress for their grievances through official processes.

In their press statement migrant worker NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) stated that “there is a gap between what is offered on paper as due process and what actually happens.” Mediation between employer and employee, the migrant worker group said, is often tilted in favor of the employer, and migrant workers face further risks of work permit cancellations and repatriation without compensation.

This can clearly be seen in the case of the bus strike: five were singled out and charged for participating in an illegal strike, while 29 who were described as “hostile and aggressive” will be repatriated. This, even though their concerns appear to have been legitimate.

There is discrepancy in wages and even the ministry found that standards need to be improved in the dormitories. Would these issues really have been picked up in closed-door negotiations if the workers had not resorted to industrial action? Or would they have been swept under the carpet?

Labor relations in Singapore have been dysfunctional for a long time. Instead of independent unions, the country functions in a tripartite system in which unions, employers and the government are more often than not closely intertwined. In fact, the unions are often seen as taking the side of the employers and the government, rather than that of the workers. Without the right to organize and participate in collective action, workers have essentially lost their most important bargaining chip, exacerbating the power imbalance between employer and employee.

That practically the entire machinery of the state had been employed in oppressing the strike is telling of how things are done in Singapore. In a Facebook status update Tan Chuan Jin thanked his colleagues in “SPF [Singapore Police Force], MHA [Ministry of Home Affairs], MOM [Ministry of Manpower], MOT [Ministry of Transport], LTA [Land Transport Authority], MinLaw [Ministry of Law], ICA [Immigration & Checkpoints Authority], AGC [Attorney-General's Chambers], MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and Prisons who have been working round the clock to manage this situation.”

This, compared to the way the government handled the SMRT train breakdowns in December 2011 (which probably caused much more of an interruption to “essential services” than the strike) where LTA went as far as to say that it shared some of the blame.

With all the emphasis on dealing with this “illegal strike,” the most crucial questions have been forgotten: what are the conditions under which the workers have to work? Is it really fair to pay people differently simply on the basis of nationality? How easy or difficult is it for workers to seek redress for their grievances? If the current unions are no longer perceived to be representing the workers, is it time to review their relevance? Will we ever hear the stories of the workers branded as “hostile and aggressive” even though the strike was peaceful? Or are we all just expected to take the ministry’s word for it?

Instead all we’re reminded of is the stick waved in all our faces: “Don’t strike. Look at how serious the consequences are. Look at how we’ll deal with you. Remember, this is Singapore. Zero tolerance.” Amidst all these warnings we sink back into apathy and inaction, and employers get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist (if anything).

Some will think that this episode only had to do with foreign workers, but the events of the bus strike is much more than that. Because if this is how the Singapore system works against workers, ultimately Singaporeans will suffer too.

(With reporting from Kirstin Han blogs for Asian Correspondent ( ). A version of this first appeared on that site, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)