Singapore has just seen its first major industrial action in 26-years. On Monday, 26 November, 2012, 100 bus drivers from the Singapore Mass Rapid Transport Corporation (SMRT) decided to stop work in protest over their pay and working conditions. As expected, bus services were affected and the SMRT was left scrambling to find a way of dealing with the situation.
The great and the good have weighed in on the issue. The Powers-That-Be have been stunned. Singapore has prided itself in being “strike-free.” The official stand is, “This is illegal criminal activity and we cannot condone it – there are proper channels to air your grievances and you cannot take things into your own hands.” There is of course the other shock in that this ‘strike’ is led by Mainland Chinese – a group the government has led into the country in the belief that they’d be so grateful to be let into Singapore that they’d be even more docile than the local population.
What’s particularly interesting is the fact that a great number of comments in the online and mainstream media have been echoing this sentiment. One lady has gone as far as to call them “thugs” and accusing them of trying to hold the nation hostage. It seems that the government has managed to find itself on the right side of the backlash against its very own policy to open the flood gates to foreign labour.
Unfortunately, everyone seems to be missing the point here. The question that should be asked is – “What is it that made 100 Mainland Chinese strike?” Let’s face it, the Chinese are known as sturdy migrants who are able to take an enormous amount of rubbish that most other groups won’t take. Today’s migrants from Mainland China don’t come from the thriving metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. A very large portion of them come from rural areas are untouched by the economic growth driving China. What you give them should be better than what they’re used to.
It turns out that the group was protesting against the fact that they were getting a vastly inferior deal to their Malaysian counterparts. According to the statistics released by SMRT an average Chinese driver was getting a good $400 a month less than his Malaysian counterpart. When the SMRT Corporation increased the pay of Malaysian drivers, it didn’t for the ones from China. A few have argued that the pay differential is not as great as it seems since the company subsidized the accommodation of the Chinamen by $270 a month per person. Unfortunately what it didn’t factor into the equation was the fact that the Chinamen worked vastly longer hours in return for their miniscule pay rise. Furthermore, the Malaysian drivers were hired as permanent staff, thus enjoying job security and regular pay increments, which the guys from China did not get (the guys from China are hired on a two-year contract).
Let’s face it, there is no rational way of looking at the comparison and realizing that the Chinese guys were getting a raw deal – raw enough for them to do something about it. Who is at fault? Whatever way you look at it, the SMRT Corporation has failed in basic communications and labour relations. Let’s just look at some issues here.
Are Chinese Bus Drivers Inferior to Malaysian Ones?
Some Singapore Chinese Graduate lady wrote on the Today News paper’s online portal that Chinese should have asked why they were getting paid less instead of complaining about it. The lady in question went as far as to suggest that the lower pay was due to inferior language skills of the Chinese bus drivers
Let’s start with the obvious; this isn’t the only time that people have complained about the lack of English language skills by people from China. Most of the complaints have come from the service sector. So given that complaints about the language skills of PRC nationals is not exactly new, why did the SMRT hire PRC drivers whose language skills may not have been up to par? As a business, it is surely in the interest of the company to ensure that the people it hires can communicate with their customers.
The Second Point is that the key element of driving a bus is driving skills rather than language skills. Yes, you do need to communicate basic messages to passengers – ie you got to be able to advise people on certain routs but other than that your job as a bus driver is to drive well and safely. Nobody has shown any evidence what so ever that PRC drivers were inferior in this crucial aspect of the job to their Malaysian and dare I say, Singaporean counterparts.
So, how exactly were the PRC chaps inferior to the other nationalities to the extent that it justified being paid less money than their counterparts for doing the same job?
China is a developing country; its citizens can afford to live on less – The Pittance they Earn here is a Fortune Where they Come From
Yes, China is developing and its people have lived on less than most. However, this argument doesn’t exactly hold water. Contrary to what many Singaporeans might like to think, migrants do bring their families over and often have to support them.
Furthermore, while what one earns in one country might seem like a fortune in another, the fact remains that most of us have to live in the country that they work in. I remember that when I lived in England, it felt like earning a salary in England would make me a rich man – everything penny earned in England would be three times what it was in Singapore. Unfortunately that changed when I had to pay bills in pounds.
So while one might comment about how people from China, India, and Bangladesh etc are earning a fortune when converted into their native currencies, they forget that our foreign labourers have to live in Singapore and pay their respective bills in Singapore dollars. What they do send back home has to be at a cost of denying themselves.
The closest anyone has to earning a strong currency and spending in a weaker one are the Malaysians who live in Johor Bahru. The distance between Singapore and Johor is reachable by train and bus. It is possible to live in Johor and work in Singapore – earning Singapore dollars and spending Ringitt is possible. It’s a different story for the chaps from Mainland China. They can’t take a bus back to China every night and spend their hard earned Singapore dollars in Chinese Yuan.
There are Official Channels they should not have taken things into their own hands.
Yes, there are official channels. Workers in Singapore can always go to their HR departments and if the HR departments don’t listen there is always the regulatory authority, which in this case is the Ministry of Manpower. If you are really desperate you can bring it to the courts.
While the system is wonderfully transparent on paper, there is a major flow – going through it requires time and money. Lawyers for one have never been known to be cheap and going through any government ministry requires time.
While the Ministry of Manpower is considered effective in what it does, it still takes 11-weeks to investigate claims made by workers against employers. While it might not seem like much time to the bureaucratic machinery, this is a lot of time for a worker, particularly the ones at the bottom of the rung who have to feed themselves and are often forced to stay in accommodation provided by the very employer they are making a complaint against.
Do you expect the economically disadvantaged to rush through the system? Rightly or wrongly, the poor, particularly those from one-party systems, don’t expect to get a fair deal.
Unfortunately, the Singapore system hasn’t exactly made itself known to be particularly ‘labour-friendly.’ Let’s face it; abusing your foreign domestic worker is less of a crime than libel against politicians. Our system has allowed a contractor to keep his workers in conditions so harsh that one of them died from chicken pox. Despite repeated calls to the police, nobody did anything until someone died and when that happened, the courts slapped the contractor in question with a mere $10,000 fine.
Contrary to what Singaporeans might believe, such stories do get around the migrant communities. The system brags about how our courts work for settling commercial disputes. While other system’s might show that the small man can win in the courts once in a while, Singapore doesn’t bother to announce those victories.
So, while the powers –that-be might talk about going through official channels, we need to look at how ordinary people perceive the system. If desperate people do not believe they have a fair chance of dealing with the system, isn’t logical that they will look to get what they perceive to be justice outside the system?
The Law Says You Have to Give Two Weeks’ Notice to Strike
Yes, this is technically and legally true. However, anyone who expects people to follow this rule when they perceive the system to be against them is living in lalala land. Sun Tzu argued that surprise was one of the key elements of victory.
The Times Have Changed
Let’s face it, the bus drivers broke the letter of the law and they will have to face the music. However, sweeping this incident under the proverbial carpet would be a gross mistake. Whatever one might think of this "strike" the point is, the Chinese Bus Drivers have made people notice them and pay attention to their complaint. While one might bleat on about how they should have gone through the "proper channels," we have to ask ourselves if we'd even know about the pay discrepancy between Chinese and Malaysian Bus Drivers. Would we even know about dormitories?
Strikes can harm an economy. Let's look at the militant unions who crippled the UK economy in the 70s as an example of what not to accept.
However, no strikes are not necessarily an example of healthy industrial relations. Workers keep quiet because they need their jobs. Businesses do benefit with lower cost, including labour cost. However, there's a point when people will not except being treated unfairly or when you pay them at such levels where they are barely surviving. Just as people don't choose to be suicide bombers as a career choice, people don't go to work to strike for the sake of it.
So, SMRT and Singapore Inc needs to treat this as a wake up call to do something about bringing the management of industrial relations into the current era. The days when workers are willing to accept minimal wages as being good for society are long gone.