Wednesday 28 November 2012

Govt moves against 'illegal strike' by SMRT bus drivers on 26 & 27 November 2012

Police probing SMRT bus drivers; plans in place if strike is prolonged
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2012

THE Government is taking action against the SMRT bus drivers from China who refused to turn up for work because they were unhappy with their wages.

Yesterday, it described what they did as an "illegal strike", and said the drivers would be dealt with if found guilty.

Meanwhile, it has put in place contingency plans to shore up bus services in case the strike is prolonged.

Describing the drivers' action as unacceptable because it disrupts an essential service, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said police are investigating.

Giving updated figures last night, SMRT said that on Monday, 171 drivers staged a sit-in at its rented workers' dormitory in Woodlands.

Yesterday, 88 remained defiant by refusing to return to work. They are protesting against what they deem to be inequitable pay and poor living conditions.

As the rare industrial action entered its second day yesterday, Mr Tan called an urgent press conference to spell out in no uncertain terms the Government's response.

He said: "MOM understands the bus drivers' grievances. We expect SMRT to address the grievances raised... However, regardless of their grievances, what the workers have done is illegal. There are right ways and wrong ways to handle these concerns... Taking the law into your own hands is wrong."

Without mincing his words, he said the workers had "disrupted public transport services and Singapore's industrial harmony", adding: "We have zero tolerance for such unlawful action."

The drivers' protest has been the talk of the town since Monday. Many asked why the action had not been labelled a "strike" and no action had been taken against the protesters.

Explaining why the Government waited a day to call the protest a "strike", Mr Tan said: "The labelling of industrial action such as this is not trivial... (it) would then open up a series of actions that would follow thereafter."

Yesterday, police said they had started investigations, but could not say more. SMRT said it was conducting its own investigation into whether terms of employment had been breached.

Under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, essential service workers cannot go on strike unless they give their employers 14 days' notice of their intention to strike.

Public transport and air transport services are among the list of essential services covered. Those found guilty of breaching this law can be fined up to $2,000 and/or jailed for up to a year.

Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo, who was also at the press conference, said 10 per cent of SMRT's bus services were affected by the strike on Monday, and 5 per cent yesterday.

To make up for the shortfall, she said drivers from SBS Transit, as well as private bus operators, had been mobilised and put on standby.

A Land Transport Authority official said it was prepared for the 88 defiant drivers to stay away from work indefinitely.

It added that there are important lessons that can be drawn from this episode - "management must maintain an open line of communication with their workers, especially those who are not union members".

Despite claims by the strikers that they had raised their grievances with their superiors, SMRT executive vice-president (roads and commercial) Teo Chew Hoon said the firm had told its drivers that "lines of communication to management remain open and they should not take such unlawful action to air their grievances".

"We apologise to all commuters for the inconvenience caused," she said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy here has called on the Manpower Ministry to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese workers according to local laws.


Taking the law into your own hands is wrong. This illegal strike is not acceptable and would be dealt with in accordance to the law.
- Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, on the Government’s zero tolerance towards strikes


The labelling of industrial action such as this is not trivial. By labelling it as a strike or not a strike would then also open up a series of actions... So, it is important for us to do due diligence, to investigate.
- Mr Tan, on why the Government did not call it an illegal strike at the outset

Actions not acceptable, says Tan Chuan-Jin

ACTING Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday at a press confernece that the SMRT bus drivers crossed the line in resorting to a strike to resolve their grievances. An excerpt of questions he and Transport Minister of State Josephine Teo fielded:
What will happen to the bus drivers?
The police will need to carry out their investigations, and we will let the investigation run its course. There will be a range of actions that will be taken, but let us provide the space for the police to carry out their investigations.

The due process will unfold over the course of the next few days and weeks, and we will take the necessary action as prescribed by the law.
Why did the ministry take time to define the action as a strike?
There were a few important considerations. Firstly, we need to ascertain the facts and circumstances, and also the rules and regulations as provided under the law.

The labelling of industrial action such as this is not trivial. By labelling it as a strike or not a strike would then also open up a series of actions that would follow thereafter. So, it is important for us to do due diligence, to investigate and make clear exactly what happened.

Secondly, with every action... there will be a series of potential responses, and it will also be prudent for us to ascertain what those reactions might be and be prepared for them.

It was important to investigate and make sure we find an exact way of judging this incident.
What is MOM's take on the drivers' grievances?
We expect all employers to treat their workers fairly in accordance to their ability, competencies and experience. The space is provided for employers to decide how best to structure their wages.

Employers also need to manage their staff well, in engagement, in looking at the terms and conditions which may not be prescribed in law. This is something that we believe SMRT will have to review on a regular basis. In this particular instance, SMRT has to address the grievances raised accordingly.

There will be lessons to be learnt. For employees, there are always avenues of recourse... employees who are unhappy or disgruntled can flag these through internal processes, and these processes need to unfold.

But taking the law into your own hands is not acceptable, especially when you involve essential services. One of the hallmarks of Singapore is that we have a high degree of industrial harmony, and this is something that we treasure. Employers must do their part, and employees must also play their part.
Has SMRT fallen short?
We continue to investigate and obviously there will be lessons to learn across the board. But it would be inappropriate at this stage for us to make any definitive proclamations either way.

There were grievances aired, and we have to look into them.

But what is unacceptable is for workers to take the law into their own hands, which is what happened in this instance.

This is illegal, and we will let the law unfold and take the necessary actions.

Trouble began after drivers got payslips
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2012

THE trouble at SMRT apparently started after its bus drivers from China received their payslips last Friday. It confirmed that they had not got any pay increase in the latest salary adjustment.

There were already murmurs of discontent last month, after SMRT put up a notice in the Woodlands dormitory that explained its latest salary increment.

That notice stated that foreign drivers would get a $50 increment - but this raise excluded Chinese nationals.

One of them, Mr He Jun Ling, 33, said that on Monday, a group gathered in front of the dorm to persuade other drivers to go on strike. The group that refused to work swelled to 171 in all, including him.

The Henan province native said drivers who did not turn up for work yesterday were not present at talks with SMRT management on Monday. He said they were unaware that SMRT had informed drivers it would decide on their salary requests in a week.

He said he did not go to work yesterday as he was sick.

Mr He said his compatriots had raised the issue of low pay with their supervisors and HR department several times, but had not received a proper response.

Since July, SMRT has required its drivers to work six days a week instead of five - a move that made drivers unhappy. It raised the pay of Chinese nationals by $75, Malaysian drivers by $150 and Singapore drivers by $425.

Last month, it raised the pay of Singapore drivers by $150 and Malaysian drivers by $50, but drivers from China got nothing.

An SMRT spokesman said SMRT had planned to review the pay of China drivers after October, and had approved a $25 increment last week.

This $25 increment was proposed to the drivers during Monday's talks, but they turned it down and asked for greater parity with Malaysian drivers.

Mr He, who has a daughter aged four back home, said the drivers had taken action as a last resort, and said he did not know they were breaking the law.

"We came here to work and earn money, not to create trouble," he said in Mandarin. "We are definitely worried about being sacked. But if we didn't fight for our rights now, we may stand to lose out more next time."

At 11pm last night, Chinese embassy officials turned up at the Woodlands dormitory and went inside to speak to the drivers.

China asks for its workers' rights to be safeguarded
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2012

CHINA has asked Singapore to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese workers according to local laws, the China News Service (CNS) reported.

The news agency said the Chinese Embassy in Singapore, in response to a question, disclosed that it had contacted the Ministry of Manpower in connection with a strike by more than 100 Chinese SMRT bus drivers.

The Singapore Government yesterday classified the strike as illegal.

CNS said the embassy was monitoring the situation closely, and had sent officials to take part in mediation.

The labour dispute has sparked outrage in China, with many people supporting the drivers.

Since news of the drivers' action broke on Monday, the two biggest microblogging sites - Sina and Tencent Weibo - have attracted more than 1,000 comments.

Many criticised SMRT for treating the bus drivers unfairly and paying them too little.

Sina Weibo user Xu Zhixin wrote: "It is normal to have pay differences between Singaporean and foreign workers, who require lodging from the company.

"But the SMRT management lacks the human touch. How can it deduct the drivers' wages when they take medical leave?"

Tencent Weibo user Xu Liqiang said: "We have to seek justice for the Chinese drivers. Why should they be deemed inferior to other foreigners?"

Others were peeved by Singaporeans who said the bus drivers should return home if they were unhappy working in Singapore.

"Troublesome Singaporeans should also 'scram' out of China!" anonymous user Chinese Revival Forever posted on the popular Tianya forum.

Another, citing the recent launch of China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning, said: "That is why we need to build more aircraft carriers and send them to Singapore's doorsteps.

"We shall see if they would still dare not to raise the wages."

Some blamed the Chinese government for not creating enough good jobs.

"Poverty allows others to look down on you," wrote Tianya user Apple Iphone 000. "If large numbers of Singaporeans have to come and work in China, we Chinese would be the proud ones."

Despite the online noise, China's media stayed mostly silent about the driver dispute in Singapore.

Only three other news reports appeared yesterday - from the official Xinhua news agency, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV and China Radio International.

End of 26-year strike-free spell in Singapore
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2012

WHEN 171 SMRT bus drivers from China refused to go to work on Monday, they ended a long 26-year strike-free spell in Singapore.

The last instance was on Jan2, 1986, when 61 workers from American oilfield equipment company Hydril picketed outside their Tuas factory. They were protesting against anti-union initiatives that the firm had taken, including axing six unionists.

To ensure that the strike was lawful, the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union, which represented the workers, took a vote and decided unanimously on the walkout.

The protest eventually ended on Jan4, after the company agreed to reinstate a union leader and compensate others.

In Singapore, strikes are legal if they follow rules stipulated in the Trade Unions Act and Trade Disputes Act.

Workers in essential services such as public transport and postal services are, however, a special breed governed by the tougher provisions of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

These workers can go on strike, but they must follow special rules like giving their employers 14 days of notice.

The criminal law that spells out the rules for workers doing essential work to strike legally has been in place since 1955, with more categories of workers added over the years. Public bus and air transport workers made the list in 1967.

Those who flout the law, including the ringleaders, can be arrested, tried in open court and jailed for up to 12 months.

Since their employer SMRT provides an essential service and the China-born drivers did not give 14 days' notice, the strike was illegal.

While the strike may have been the first in 26 years, there have been some close shaves in between.

On May 11, 1988, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) staged a massive protest involving 4,000 workers in Shenton Way to signal its unhappiness with the United States for interfering with Singapore's domestic politics.

While some saw it as a strike, it was more of a public protest, said NTUC president emeritus John De Payva, who participated in it.

He explained that there was no work stoppage, no company was targeted and workers took their own leave to join in.

In 2002, Singapore Airlines pilots threatened to take "industrial action" when they butted heads with the airline over their in-flight breaks.

Even this week's brush was not SMRT's first with its workers. On March 29, 1988, 20 train drivers were absent from work. The following day, 40 did not show up.

The police investigated, but it is not known what came of it.

There have been several cases of disgruntled workers from China staging protests in recent times.

In August, over 100 Panasonic factory workers from China started an online petition demanding higher pay and better working conditions. Panasonic took steps to remedy some of their grievances.

Last year, two Chinese nationals decided to take matters into their own hands. One climbed up a 30m-tall crane and refused to come down for over two hours until a pay dispute was settled.

Another clung onto scaffolding seven storeys high and threatened to jump to his death unless his employer gave him $15,000. Both were charged and jailed.

"I believe it is quite common in China to take such action in such circumstances," said Associate Professor Ravi Chandran, who teaches employment law at the National University of Singapore.

102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 27 Nov 2012

ABOUT 100 SMRT bus drivers recruited from China have agreed to go back to work today, after day-long talks with the bus operator over salary, and work and living issues.

The 102 drivers had refused to show up for work yesterday, resulting in a number of bus services being affected.

Last night, SMRT apologised to commuters and the public for the inconvenience caused.

A spokesman said SMRT had recently given salary increments to all drivers who joined the company before July this year.

The 102 drivers from China were not happy with their increment, she said. "We regret that they chose to express their unhappiness about their salaries in this manner, especially when our lines of communication with them are always open," she added.

SMRT has about 2,000 bus drivers - compared to competitor SBS Transit's 5,300 - of which about 450 are from China.

Talks between management and the disaffected drivers started in the morning, and ended at about 6pm.

The protest began before dawn, when workers at the company's rented dormitory in Woodlands Sector 1 refused to start their morning shift. More workers travelled from another dormitory near Serangoon Garden to join the sit-in by mid-morning. Later, some who were on the afternoon shift also joined in.

At around 10am, police were called in, while SMRT scrambled to call back drivers on their day off to fill in for the absentees.

As the day progressed, tension mounted and red police riot trucks arrived. The police said 45 officers were deployed, but they did not have to intervene.

The incident ended at about 6pm, when the drivers said they would return to work today and that SMRT management had promised to look into their grouses. This included how Malaysian drivers were getting paid more.

A driver from China, who did not want to be named, said: "The company should not discriminate between us and the Malaysian drivers. This is most important. Their salary has increased much more than ours, but we work as long as them and we work harder than them."

Another China-born driver said they earn about $1,100 before overtime.

The sit-in brought swift censure from various quarters, who said the drivers should have sought less disruptive means to address their unhappiness.

The Manpower Ministry, which helped with talks, said it takes the workers' actions "very seriously". A spokesman said "workers are advised to speak to management to discuss and resolve any employment-related issues amicably, rather than take matters into their own hands".

The National Transport Workers' Union said aggrieved workers can approach the ministry or Migrant Workers Centre for help.


Key grouse said to be over unequal salaries
By Royston Sim & Kezia Toh, The Straits Times, 27 Nov 2012

FOR about two hours yesterday afternoon, the 100 or so SMRT bus drivers from China were huddled in a dormitory in Woodlands Sector 1, locked in negotiations over pay with SMRT management.

Police officers stood guard outside, with three patrol cars parked in front of the main building.

Finally, at around 5.45pm, a group of about 30 of them who live in a separate dormitory in Serangoon streamed out.

They told reporters who swirled around them that the transport operator had agreed to consider their decision to raise their wages, and would get back to them in a week.

SMRT had sent buses at around noon to ferry the drivers to Bishan depot to discuss the matter, but it is believed that the drivers refused to board them.

The drivers said their main unhappiness was over the unequal salaries paid to Chinese nationals and Malaysians for doing what was essentially the same job.

One driver who declined to be named said that in three pay adjustment exercises conducted this year, Chinese nationals each received a total raise of $75, compared to $275 for Malaysians.

"It is discrimination. We are foreigners, but so are they," he said in Mandarin.

Others complained about poor living conditions.

One driver folded up his left sleeve to reveal bedbug sores, and said workers at the Serangoon dormitory were constantly served leftover food. Another said conditions there were "like a prison".

An afternoon shift driver known only as Mr Yan said he learnt about the protest at 11am, and made his way to Woodlands to join the talks.

He said drivers from China have been unhappy about their low wages for some time, pointing out that with the recently introduced six-day work week, drivers earn less as they have fewer days to earn overtime pay.

There seems to have been some pressure on the drivers to act collectively.

One Chinese national told The Straits Times that he had wanted to report for work that day, but was prevented from doing so by other drivers. He did not elaborate.

At Woodlands interchange, many SMRT bus drivers declined to speak about the issue.

One Singaporean driver who wanted to be known only as Mr Rabu said he was asked to ply an additional trip yesterday morning.

The 57-year-old said: "The company did not tell us why, but we know. Some drivers did not turn up to work today."

One Malaysian bus driver in his 40s noted that while he earned more than his counterparts from China, he still loses out to local drivers who receive several hundred dollars more each month.

SMRT issued a statement last night to say all workers have agreed to go back to work today.

But five drivers from China arriving at the Serangoon dormitory at about 7pm did not seem so sure. They told The Straits Times they were still unhappy, and would "wait and see" before deciding to return to work today.

Day-long protest
- 3.30am: Drivers gather at Woodlands dormitory. 
- 8am: About 100 drivers are spotted, including some from a dorm in Serangoon. 
- 9.30am: Some SMRT staff arrive. 
- 10am: Police get call for help - 45 officers, four special operations command vehicles and three patrol cars are deployed. 
- Noon: Buses arrive to take drivers to Bishan depot to discuss matter. SMRT management already there; drivers refuse to go to Bishan. 
- 4pm: Drivers agree to discuss issue, and proper discussions begin at dorm. 
- 6pm: Talks end. Drivers say SMRT told them the salary issue will be resolved in a week.

Reliance on foreign bus drivers in sharp focus
Larger issue may be the difficulty in recruiting more locals, say observers
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 27 Nov 2012

YESTERDAY's action by 102 SMRT bus drivers brought into focus issues that have come with transport operators' growing dependence on foreign workers.

Bus operators began hiring bus drivers from China in 2008. They now make up 11 per cent of SBS Transit's pool of 5,300 drivers, and 22 per cent of SMRT's 2,000 drivers.

The pay gap between Chinese and Malaysian drivers was one catalyst for yesterday's protest. The former received much lower pay rises than the latter group, even though they perform roughly the same functions.

Veteran unionist and MP Halimah Yacob said this was probably because of SMRT's differing cost structures for the two groups of drivers.

For instance, SMRT has to pay for lodging for Chinese drivers, but not Malaysians, who typically commute to and from their homes across the Causeway.

She noted that the drivers should have sought proper avenues to address their grievances.

Even if they failed to reach a resolution with management, they could have turned to the Manpower Ministry, she said.

But Madam Halimah - who is also Minister of State for Social and Family Development - added that companies should be cognizant of changing circumstances facing Chinese workers.

"China is growing rapidly. Its economy is able to absorb many more workers, and they are also able to pay better than before," she said.

"So employers here have to factor that in."

Mr Kenneth Soh, a social worker at non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too, said the larger issue may have to do with why there are not enough Singaporean drivers.

"Perhaps we need to relook at our salary policies, to attract more locals so as to have a lower reliance on foreigners," he said.

Active social commentator and former chief of union-backed insurer NTUC Income Tan Kin Lian also urged public transport operators to pay better salaries and provide better working conditions to recruit more locals.

"Locals will be more familiar with our roads and languages, and can interact better with commuters," he said.

Member of Parliament Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said buses were an essential public service, and Singapore must guard against situations where such service providers are held hostage to protesters.

"There is always a balance to be struck between employee and employer interests," Mr Foo said.

"But conflicts do surface from time to time, and due process should be followed to address them.

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