Striking migrant workers in Singapore punished with deportation

On the morning of November 26, 171 Chinese migrant workers in Singapore — all of whom were bus drivers for major public transport operator SMRT — refused to get on the shuttle buses sent to pick them up at their dormitory. Assembling in protest against unsatisfactory wages and living conditions, they pointed out that SMRT discrimates based on nationality. While the Chinese bus drivers were given a basic monthly salary of S$1,075 (approx. US$880), their Malaysian counterparts were being paid S$1,375 (approx. US$1,126) a month. The Chinese workers are given lodging and transport while the Malaysians are not, however, the Chinese have also made complaints about the living conditions in the dormitories.

Although the small, peaceful protest did not cause much disruption, the event drew plenty of attention in the media and from the public. As I have previously mentioned, Singapore has been relatively strike-free for years. Previous strikes by migrant workers had gone by fairly unnoticed, but this time the protest did come not from construction workers. They came to the public service sector, and specifically to a company whose reputation had already taken a drubbing over the past year due to train breakdowns and whistle-blowing from unhappy workers.

After the news of the strike broke, the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) issued a statement saying that they “did not have the legal mandate” to represent the Chinese workers, urging them to go back to work “immediately.” Part of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), the NTWU was formed to represent transport workers in Singapore, but has been criticized for not serving its purpose, as it supported SMRT management after it changed the pay framework earlier this year.

After entering into negotiations with SMRT management, the 171 bus drivers agreed to return to work on November 27, but 88 bus drivers chose not to get on the shuttle bus, saying that negotiations had not been satisfactory. After Monday’s negotiations, SMRT management had apparently offered them a S$25 per month pay raise, and given them a week to think it over.

Mainstream media outlets like The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia bent over backwards to avoid using the word “strike” in Monday’s coverage, choosing instead to say that the bus drivers had “refused to go to work.” The word was only used when the Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan Jin declared on Tuesday that the bus drivers had participated in an “illegal strike,” for which there would be “zero tolerance.” (The law related to industrial action was briefly explained here.) The NTUC — a national confederation of trade unions in Singapore — endorsed the government’s action, saying in its statement, “Any action that is illegal must and will be dealt with firmly, regardless of whether the workers are local or foreign. We have a system in place to deal with workplace issues and grievances, one that has been painstakingly built over the years and has served us well. This must continue.”

SMRT lodged a police report against the 88 who did not return to work on Tuesday, and five were arrested and charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. If found guilty they could face fines up to S$2,000 and/or up to 12 months in jail. Twenty-nine others had their work permits revoked and will be repatriated to China.

The dependence on foreign labor has grown within public transport as companies find it difficult to attract locals to work as bus drivers. Chinese drivers now make up about 22 percent of SMRT’s pool of 2,000 drivers. This trend is reflected in many other industries in Singapore as well, where foreign labor has been brought in to make up for the lack of local workers. A side effect of such a situation is that many labor issues and actions are now being highlighted and undertaken by migrant workers. In 2009, about 200 Chinese construction workers gathered outside the Ministry of Manpower to protest unpaid wages. In February this year a group of Bangladeshi workers organized a sit-in to protest unpaid wages and substandard food provided at work. In August a group of Chinese workers at Panasonic’s Singapore factory started a petition to highlight low wages, forced overtime and high agent fees.

Still, these disputes never go beyond their individual circumstances. There is yet to be a union representing migrant workers, and it is difficult for migrant workers to connect and organize outside of their own circles. These workers are often vulnerable to cancellations of work permits and repatriation, and non-governmental organizations like the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) are unable to encourage them to organize without being censured by the government for inciting conflict.

Although some Singaporeans supported the bus drivers’ action, many others condemned it, saying that they should have tried to negotiate rather than strike and disrupt the efficiency of Singapore’s services. Others argued that this incident has showed why companies should hire Singaporeans over foreigners – after all, Singaporeans would never go on strike!

It’s a strange mindset. If the workers’ concerns were legitimate, why this rejection of their choice to strike? Despite the drastic consequences, the strike had not been entirely in vain — the workers were able to force the company to take action on a problem that could have otherwise been brushed aside, and also to attract the attention of the wider public in examining labor relations in Singapore.

The bus strike has demonstrated that organized industrial action can be effective and useful in promoting the rights of workers. Why then are Singaporeans still so quick to reject such strategies, preferring to restrict their complaints to coffee tables and online forums?

“In this particular SMRT case, it’s because the state (led by minister Tan CJ) has been very firm in framing the argument in legalistic terms … the first time the term [strike] was used it was an “illegal strike”, and so even when it is acknowledged there are unfair employment terms, people don’t want to be seen as endorsing something that is against the law,” said migrant rights advocate Stephanie Chok. “There is also the emphasis on how these are essential service workers, the disruption caused to commuters and how other bus drivers have to cover their shifts — their strike action is very much framed as selfish and inconveniencing others.”

Blogger Andrew Loh agrees. “Ultimately, it is because the system is geared towards political disempowerment of the people. And anyone who sticks his neck out will be cut down.”

Yet sometimes there is no other choice but to take such action. As TWC2 has pointed out, it can often be difficult for workers to highlight their concerns through official processes. Rules written on paper may not necessarily be practically applied.

“From our experience assisting migrant workers with the Ministry of Manpower, the mediation process tends to be biased, favoring the employer,” says migrant rights advocate Shelley Thio.

Efforts have been made to stop the drivers from airing their grievances in the future. It has been reported that SMRT has banned the drivers from speaking to the media, and that security around the dormitory has been increased to keep the media out. The strikers have also all been given warnings, but the deportation of 29 workers will no doubt serve as the most effective reminder of the consequences of taking action.

The day after the 29 were repatriated, SMRT issued a statement saying that they would not adjust the salaries of Chinese bus drivers.

It’s a sad indictment of labor relations in Singapore. Much needs to change before the situation can be improved, and migrant workers cannot be the only ones in this struggle. Singaporeans, too, need to begin to stand up for labor rights.

A group of concerned Singaporeans have thus decided to gather in support of the Chinese workers, planning a forum for the weekend advocating for “equal work, equal pay” and for independent unions. They also plan to release a statement of solidarity and begin a photo project where Singaporeans are encouraged to post photos of themselves with placards calling for an end to discrimination and the establishment of independent trade unions.

“The reaction of the public in support of the government’s actions shows that there is still much work to be done in terms of getting people to understand what the fundamental rights for workers are,” says Ted Tan from human rights group Think Centre. “The workers’ call was to seek just and fair treatment and remedies. So we must express solidarity on their choice and form of action.”

There is no guarantee that the establishment will take note of the campaign. Change is a long time coming, yet still far out of reach. But the hope is that these efforts will at least begin to turn the tide of public opinion, and show Singaporeans that collective action is an important part of the struggle for a fairer system of labor relations.

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