Monday 10 December 2012

Forum sees lively debate over workers' concerns

Speakers highlight challenges local and migrant workers face, in wake of recent strike
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2012

A forum on the recent bus drivers' strike evoked calls for people to understand workers' concerns, even as speakers widened the debate to larger issues about labour laws, trade unionism and workers' rights.

While last month's strike involved workers from China, it raises questions about matters that transcend nationality, they said.

"Too many voices have instantly cast this as a nationality question," said blogger Alex Au. "My appeal is to see this for purely what it is - a question of workers' rights... and appropriate, effective, meaningful channels for grievance resolution."

He was among four speakers who addressed a packed room of more than 100 people at yesterday's forum at Bras Basah Complex, which was organised by civil society group Think Centre.

The crowd included opposition politicians, foreign media and members of the public.

The speakers sought to highlight the challenges that both local and migrant workers face, so as to get a better understanding of why the 171 SMRT drivers decided not to turn up for work.

Some migrant workers face poor living conditions and have no record of payment discrepancies, said Mr Au.

Historian Loh Kah Seng suggested looking for lessons from the past. The history of labour activism in Singapore from the 1940s to the 1970s, he said, showed that workers were rational and practical.

For low-income workers, "deciding to go on strike was a heavy decision which came with a lot of implications and risk" as they could lose their jobs, he observed.

Other speakers criticised what they felt were weaknesses in Singapore's labour laws.

Think Centre's Mr Sinapan Samydorai argued that changes to the laws over the decades had "eroded" basic workers' rights and curtailed the powers of trade unions, while retired lawyer Teo Soh Lungasked if public transport should be considered an "essential service" - which means that workers in this industry must give 14 days' notice before striking.

Mr Au said some would back this classification, but suggested that in return, the Government should take special care of these workers' welfare.

A lively debate also arose over the issue of whether workers should receive equal basic pay regardless of their nationality. The Chinese drivers had been unhappy over getting less than their Malaysian counterparts.

Mr Samydorai and Mr Au were in favour, saying that equal pay would also give employers more incentive to hire Singaporeans.

But a bus driver in the audience opposed the idea strongly. Citizens should be rewarded for doing national service and the cost of living here is also higher than in other countries, he said.

The three-hour session wrapped up with an announcement that some 20 civil society members were planning to issue a joint statement calling for better protection of workers' rights. Transient Workers Count Too also said it was accepting donations for the four drivers out on bail.

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