Monday 3 December 2012

29 drivers to be sent back to China

Probe wrapped up with fifth driver to be charged; others involved get warning
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

Twenty-nine SMRT bus drivers from China yesterday received a stern warning from the police for their role in last week's illegal strike, had their work permits revoked and will be sent home.

The Government said one more driver will be charged tomorrow, bringing the total to five including the four charged last week.

The 150 other drivers who had taken part in the strike but "showed remorse over their actions, or were even coerced into participating" will be warned.

No further action will be taken against this group and they will be allowed to remain and work here, so long as they continue to abide by Singapore's laws.

It described the strike last Monday and Tuesday as planned and premeditated, disrupting public transport, which is an essential service, and posing a threat to public order.

"While the SMRT bus drivers may have had grievances, these should have been raised through the legal and proper means available," it said.

He said foreigners should abide by the laws of their host countries, just as Singaporeans who work and live overseas are expected to do the same.

While the Government acknowledged that many drivers took part in the strike "in the heat of the moment", and recognised that various grievances were raised, their actions remain illegal.

For the second time in a week, the ministry had strong words for transport operator SMRT. Mr Tan said it "could have done better" in managing the drivers' woes, and it must prevent such "a severe breakdown in labour relations" from occurring again.

"Companies should not allow labour grievances to fester... This is also a good and timely reminder, not just for SMRT, but for all companies to reflect on their management practices, the way they engage and look after their workers," he said.

Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo, who co-chaired the conference, said the departure of the drivers will delay services slightly. Forty-five drivers from outside SMRT will be roped in to make up the shortfall.

The conference wrapped up an eventful week where labour relations and the hitherto unseen face of public bus drivers hit the headlines. The wages of foreign workers - especially doing jobs unpopular with Singaporeans - and how they are treated made it to the national conversation.

They told reporters they were unhappy with how SMRT bus drivers from Malaysia were paid better than them - $1,400 a month against their $1,075.

They were also disgruntled at conditions in their dormitories, with some rolling up their shirt sleeves to show bites from bedbugs. They also complained that SMRT had ignored and was insensitive to their complaints.

SMRT management met them for several hours till 6pm. The transport operator said it would get back to them in a week about their wage concerns, and the drivers said they would return to work.

Last Tuesday, however, 88 drivers continued to be absent. The Ministry of Manpower condemned their actions as an "illegal strike" - the first since 1986.

The strike ended last Wednesday. The next day, four drivers were charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which states that anyone who instigates and incites others to take part in a strike or lockout shall be guilty of an offence. The Act covers strikes of workers from essential services, including public transport.

If found guilty, the four - as well as the fifth driver to be charged tomorrow - face a fine of up to $2,000 or a jail term of up to a year or both.

Meanwhile, the 29 drivers are being housed at the Admiralty West Prison while repatriation paperwork is being finalised. SMRT said they will be paid before they leave, including ex gratia bonuses on a pro rated basis.

The Chinese embassy here yesterday said it hopes Singapore will handle the matter "appropriately".

Drivers to get ex gratia pay before leaving
Chinese embassy officials visit the 29 awaiting repatriation; SMRT said to bear cost
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

The 29 SMRT bus drivers from China who will be repatriated will get ex gratia bonuses on a pro rated basis before they leave.

An SMRT spokesman said they will also be paid for yesterday and get all claims owed to them, if any.

The Chinese embassy here said last night that its officials visited the 29 yesterday to understand the situation and convey the drivers' demands to the authorities.

It added that the drivers will be successively sent back to China from today. It is understood that the cost of repatriation will be borne by SMRT.

The move capped a morning of activity when SMRT buses arrived at the dormitories to pick up the 29.

Plain-clothes police officers had begun arriving at both the Woodlands and Serangoon dormitories from 3am. About 10 officers were spotted at Serangoon, and another 20 or so at Woodlands.

At around 8.15am, three SMRT buses arrived at Woodlands and one entered the Serangoon dorm at 8.25am.

At Woodlands, 24 drivers boarded the buses while five did so at Serangoon. They had just a few belongings with them and all looked calm.

The buses departed after 9am for the Admiralty West Prison, each escorted by cars driven by the plain-clothes officers.

It is understood that the men were not under arrest, and that they had been told the night before that they were going to be interviewed by the authorities yesterday morning.

After arriving at Admiralty West Prison, the drivers were sternly warned by the police for participating in the strike.

The Controller of Work Passes then revoked their work permits, and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority started the process of repatriating them.

Sources said that SMRT staff bought winter clothing for the 29 drivers heading home. Staff also helped to pack their personal belongings at the dormitories and took them to the drivers.

The Sunday Times understands that the packing was witnessed by SMRT audit staff and by the drivers' dorm-mates whenever possible.

At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin gave details on how police established varying levels of participation in the illegal strike last Monday and Tuesday.

Top of the list were the four men charged in court last Thursday with conspiring to instigate the other drivers to strike. He Jun Ling, 32, Gao Yue Qiang, 32, Liu Xiangying, 33, and Wang Xianjie, 39, are currently in remand.

Next was a fifth driver, who will be charged for "being a hostile and aggressive participant" in the strike.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said the Public Prosecutor obtained a summons yesterday for him to be charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

The driver's details will be revealed when he is charged in court tomorrow.

Another group comprised the 29 who will be repatriated. Mr Tan said these were clearly "active participants" in the strike, even though some had medical certificates.

A statement from the ministries of Home Affairs and Manpower said these drivers who persisted in the strike were absent on either or both days without reason.

Finally, there were others who took part in the strike - estimated to number more than 150 - who were more passive, and will get a warning by the police.

Of this group, Mr Tan said a number indicated they were coerced or unclear about what would happen if they joined the strike. "We understand that some were also being threatened," he said.

Many who participated realised the severity of the incident and what they were getting themselves into only when the authorities came in to advise them, he said.

Upon learning what they did was wrong, many stepped back and did not continue, he added.

In contrast, the five who face charges and the 29 "clearly went beyond those boundaries" and were actively involved, he said.

SMRT last night reiterated that "valuable lessons" from the incident are being addressed by its management.

It said it needs to improve its "management, communication and engagement efforts to be more proactive, responsible and sensitive" to the needs of its drivers.

"We are determined to come out stronger from this episode," it said.

Stand-in drivers to help meet shortfall
Interim measure until full-time replacements found; commuters can expect some delays
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

Transport operator SMRT is roping in another 45 bus drivers to meet its shortfall of drivers after clearing the decks of the culprits behind last week's illegal strike.

However, commuters will still have to be prepared for about 5 per cent of SMRT routes being affected and longer waiting times for some routes in the meantime.

These relief drivers have started their week-long training to familiarise themselves with the routes and the buses before starting to ferry passengers.

During their training, SMRT will recall off-duty bus drivers and ask bus driving instructors to make up the numbers.

Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo yesterday outlined the measures being taken to reduce the impact on commuters as a result of the repercussions of the strike last Monday and Tuesday.

She was speaking at a joint press conference with Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin.

These interim measures will be in place for two to three months while SMRT recruits permanent drivers to replace the 34 the company lost this week.

Four drivers have been charged with instigating the strike, with another being charged tomorrow. Some 29 drivers will be repatriated for taking part in the strike over pay and living conditions.

Mrs Teo said that the transport community had "come together" to get through this period.

Of the 45 replacement drivers, 30 are from public transport operator SBS Transit while 15 are from private bus operators.

The Transport Ministry said that these were "experienced drivers" with Class 4 licences to drive big buses.

It added that SMRT was already getting its drivers to work overtime and during their days off, but this was not sustainable.

Asked if the safety of commuters was a concern, as some bus drivers may still be disgruntled over the incident, Mrs Teo said that there was no reason to believe that was the case.

The drivers have said that they regretted their actions and have also chosen to go back to work, she added.

"We shouldn't cast doubts on them and their willingness to do their jobs... I think any more of this casting of aspersions on their willingness to do their jobs properly is not helpful," she said.

Asked if the salaries of bus drivers would be reviewed given that they are currently much lower than those in other countries, Mr Tan replied that if a company did not offer competitive wages, it would not be able to attract workers.

It was ultimately about market forces, he said.

Noting that there were plans to increase the number of buses and services, Mr Tan said that companies need to address how they can find drivers.

In his own view, he added, the industry needs to re-look bus drivers' salaries. He noted that the Land Transport Authority is closely working with the industry on this.

An entry-level SMRT bus driver from China gets a monthly basic salary of $1,075, while those from Malaysia get $1,400, and Singaporeans $1,675.

On whether public transport operators will be allowed to recruit bus drivers from beyond Malaysia and China, Mr Tan said that there were no such plans at the moment.

SMRT told to take greater care with HR matters
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

Just as transport operator SMRT must stay on top of its maintenance regime, so too must it take care with human resource matters, said Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo yesterday.

She was replying to a question on whether the Ministry of Transport was concerned about the illegal strike of SMRT's bus drivers coming so soon after its train services broke down last December.

A committee of inquiry into the train disruptions had found the transport operator largely to blame. Following the December incidents, it embarked on a series of upgrading and maintenance measures.

Ms Teo said that as an essential service provider, SMRT must handle its human resource matters with greater care.

She said the Transport Ministry and Land Transport Authority expect SMRT to "take a very serious view" of issues in human resource, maintenance and all other areas that they may need to improve on to continue providing a high level of service to commuters.

She added that her ministry will be in close contact with SMRT to understand exactly what steps it is taking.

The role of the operator in the illegal strike was something reporters raised several times during yesterday's press conference.

Asked to elaborate on the company's lapses, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said "the conversation is ongoing".

His ministry is aware of some of the grievances that the bus drivers highlighted, and he noted that SMRT is also aware of them, has taken on board feedback and is making improvements.

"The issue is really why did this happen, why was it allowed to fester?" he said. "We do understand that the channels of communications are there. So the question is, did it filter upwards? It did not filter upwards. Why not?"

He welcomed measures that SMRT has since put in place, such as more feedback channels like a round-the-clock hotline for drivers and a team of liaison officers that drivers can approach if they have problems.

As to whether they are enough, he said there will be medium-term and longer-term steps that will need to be taken, and his ministry will monitor this.

But he also took pains to stress that what happened at SMRT also holds lessons for other companies.

As part of good management and HR practices, companies should always ensure lines of communication are kept open and that they have proper grievance handling procedures in place, he said.

There are many practices not required by law that "any good company should have to fulfil", including how a firm manages its employees and looks out for their welfare.

"Frankly it's common sense," Mr Tan said. "Companies are expected to do that and we constantly would want to promote good HR practices in all companies."

In a statement yesterday, an SMRT spokesman acknowledged that the operator needed to improve its management, communication and engagement efforts to be more proactive, responsible and sensitive to the needs of its drivers.

Thanking all SMRT drivers for their continued hard work, she said the operator would continue to actively engage drivers at all levels to address their concerns holistically.

Firms 'must reflect on employment practices'
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

They should look at the way they engage and take care of their workers, he said.

What is important is for companies to keep open lines of communication and have proper procedures in place to handle grievances.

Whatever grievances that exist should not be allowed to fester over time, he added.

"It is not just about foreign workers but our own local workers as well. It is about basic corporate social responsibility," he said.

By and large, though, employers here have been responsible in the way they treat their workers, both local and foreign, judging by the surveys and feedback solicited, he said.

"But we do want to promote better employment practices, we want to make sure that good HR practices are in place," he added.

The episode is hence a good opportunity for companies to realise that even though they may not be breaking any laws, there are other responsibilities expected of them as employers, he said.

He added that the Singapore National Employers Federation will be issuing an advisory to its members on this soon.

On the issue of poor living conditions provided by SMRT, which the drivers who took action claimed was the case in their dormitories, Mr Tan noted that the Manpower Ministry conducts regular checks on dormitories to ensure that they are up to par and there is no overcrowding.

He said that while external areas of dormitories are contracted out, the condition of each bunk depends primarily on the workers.

"I think we also need to ask ourselves about the level of maintenance that individuals carry out. And this applies to even our own households," he said.

Action not a bilateral issue, says minister
By Maria Almenoar and Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 2 Dec 2012

The actions taken against the Chinese SMRT bus drivers for their role in a two-day strike are not a bilateral issue between China and Singapore, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said yesterday.

"This is an issue where laws are violated; in this case, the SMRT bus drivers overstepped the boundaries," he said.

"They broke the law by participating in an illegal strike. It's important not to politicise the issue."

He made the comment when asked whether the actions against the bus drivers would affect Singapore's relations with China.

Four of them have been charged with instigating work stoppage; another will be charged tomorrow, and 29 are being repatriated. The others will be given police warnings for their role in disrupting an essential service.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr Tan said that foreigners must abide by the laws of the land. The Government will take firm action against any illegal strikes, regardless of the strikers' nationality.

As with all incidents involving foreigners, the protocol is to work with their embassies, and the Government has been working very closely with the Chinese Embassy.

"We will have to let the law unfold and take the necessary action. We have made that quite clear to the embassy and they understand that," Mr Tan said.

In a statement last night, the Chinese Embassy said it was in contact with the authorities. It added that it "has expressed deep concern over this incident several times, has reasonable worries over the development and effects of the current situation, and hopes that the relevant Singapore authorities will handle this matter appropriately".

The chief of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Dr Lim Wee Kiak, did not think the episode would affect ties adversely.

"Our laws must be respected," he said. "We have labour dispute mechanisms in place, even for foreign workers in Singapore. They must have access to these labour dispute mechanisms."


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