SMRT Chinese drivers strike: A bus load of issues

SMRT Driver Strike -

A striking situation

This strike by SMRT’s Chinese bus drivers is turning out to be a very interesting development. And it’s not just the thesaurus’s worth of euphemisms that we learned yesterday. While the mainstream media is busy explaining itself today why it avoided the word ‘strike’ — because apparently what they did is technically not one — and whether it’s legal or not, the incident has brought out a whole load of social issues that deserve closer examination.

Foreign labour pay
It is now out in the open that SMRT pays its bus drivers differently for the same job. This differentiation applies not only between citizens and non-citizens but even amongst foreign employees from different countries. SMRT may attempt to explain this down to different levels of job responsibilities, experience or language skills, but not many will be convinced.

For Singaporeans, it will be short-sighted to find any comfort in this affirmation that locals get paid more. If employers can pay foreigners less, there is little incentive to get Singaporeans to do these jobs. And if a big employer like SMRT can get away with such a practice, what about the SMEs? After all, they are keen to blame it on Singaporeans for being picky about lower level jobs. It is telling on what is perhaps an accepted and widespread practice when one of the Chinese drivers stated clearly that they don’t expect to be paid the same level as Singaporeans.

Laws that don’t hold up to international standards
The government will continue to find itself in a spot as long as we have local laws that don’t hold up to international standards. In this instance, it is the right to protest. Situations like this can still be contained if only locals are involved, but how do you deal with it when foreigners don’t follow your rules? Remember Michael Fay? At least he did actually commit a crime. These Chinese drivers didn’t do anything worse than standing up against an unfair treatment that so far SMRT has not denied. It is likely that they were previously ignored by management and have no other recourse than refusing outright to work. Every worker has a right to act against unfair employment policies. We have had Bangladeshis and Chinese protesting this year, so the PAP can’t blame this on ‘western ideals of democracy’.

Still, should labour strikes be allowed? We have been taught to think of strikes as bad and crippling to the economy but in many other countries they view strikes as a fundamental right of every worker. It is a slippery slope that the PAP has been smart not to go down. The city of London is frequently held to ransom by militant union leaders who call for strikes on the smallest issues. A whole ecosystem of businesses, residents and diligent workers can be penalised if the union is not satisfied with the injury compensation for a single worker. This delicate balance between responsible strike actions (an oxymoron perhaps) and worker rights must be managed through proper procedures of strike balloting and notice periods, but in reality is much harder to get right.

Role of unions
Even though these drivers are not under any unions, this incident nevertheless brings to the fore the role of unions in Singapore. Despite all the trumpeting over the years by the government about the strong tripartite relationship it has with the union and employers, the truth is that the union is run by government leaders. And all these can be traced to a history of politicised unions and violent riots that the PAP has since been keen to avoid.

So while the present union does seek to look after its workers, its position can be easily undermined by a strong government influence within its ranks. In fact, this is one aspect that hasn’t been emphasized enough in the national conversation so far — that a lack of strong, independent unions is a major contributing factor to suppressed wage levels and an increasing income gap.

Government’s response
The mainstream press has been rightly mocked for its refusal to call a strike a strike, and this is indicative of the government’s intention to play down the incident on the first day. I was wondering what happened to the government’s usual stance of ‘zero tolerance’. Too bad for them, the trouble just won’t go away. Right on cue on the second day, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin has come out to repeat their favourite phrase. Don’t get this wrong, we are a tolerant society — except on things we have zero tolerance for.

Right now we have seen more appeasement, with tea and biscuits to boot, than any hard line counter action. The government is right to play this carefully, because being too tough or too soft could both prove unwise. On the one hand, it risks incurring the wrath of a mighty foreign power with tough penalties on these Chinese drivers. On the other, a soft hand may encourage others to follow in their action. We need only look at the London riots of last year to see how an isolated incident, given the slightest trigger, could escalate with alarming speed if copycat opportunistic acts start to proliferate, especially in a society with deep underlying grievances.

Discriminatory employment practices
What will happen to these drivers remains a question. What is pretty certain, though, is that nothing will happen to SMRT. No serious questions will be asked of the employment practices of SMRT. Are they discriminatory? Is there an independent body to investigate? If not, what protects employees, both local and foreign, against such practices? Unfortunately, the focus in this episode will be on the ‘illegal strike’ by the drivers.

Social consequences of immigration policy
The PAP is keen to warn us of racial fault lines in our society, but there is a bigger problem we are facing as this strike action highlights from a broader perspective. Forty percent of the country’s current population is not raised here. That means that forty percent didn’t go through a childhood of social conditioning where we are taught to behave in a way that conforms to the laws of our country.

While this is an issue every country with foreigners face, the situation in Singapore is exacerbated by the sudden influx in the past 15 years and a very high proportion of non-citizens. If Amy Cheong, despite living in Singapore for ten years, can be clueless on what is taboo in our society, what of the tens of thousands of foreign workers we are bringing in every year? Would they behave in the way our society expects them to? What do we do if they don’t?

As the tight control over the years has resulted in timid and law-abiding Singaporeans, crime and civil disobedience are bound to increase with more daring and outspoken foreigners in the mix. Perhaps that’s why we need CCTVs in HDB estates now, because one day our streets may not be as safe as they once were. And it’s not just negative values that foreigners bring, as the Chinese drivers show in this instance of having the guts to stand up for their rights. Is the government and is our society prepared for all these?

It’s day 2 of the strikes now. The government will have to act if this continues. Will it be 3 strikes and you’re out?