Thursday 18 September 2014

Guidelines to safeguard bus workers' jobs during the transition to the Government Contracting Model in 2016

By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 17 Sep 2014

BUS workers must be offered a job by companies which take over the routes of their current employers.

And the terms cannot be worse than what the drivers are enjoying now.

These were among a series of steps spelt out yesterday by a tripartite body headed by Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo.

Concerns over the fate of workers such as drivers and technicians had been raised as Singapore moves towards a new contracting model from 2016.

Under the new government contracting model, operators will bid for the right to run parcels of routes for a fixed number of years.

If an operator fails to meet service standards, it risks not being invited to bid for future parcels, which raises the potential uncertainty for workers.

The Public Transport Tripartite Committee (PTTC) was set up in February to address the concerns over this uncertainty.

Yesterday, Mrs Teo, who chairs the committee, announced three key recommendations for the industry come 2016.

First, all affected workers must be offered a job by an incoming operator.

Second, affected workers must be offered employment terms no worse than what they have been enjoying - at least for the first year.

Third, affected workers can choose to join the new operator, or be redeployed by their current employer, where feasible.

"I cannot over-emphasise the importance of good employment practices and healthy industrial relations to the provision of high-quality bus services," said Mrs Teo, who is also Senior Minister of State for Finance.

She added that the Government, unions and transport operators know this.

The committee - made up of representatives of the Land Transport Authority, Ministry of Manpower, National Transport Workers' Union, SBS Transit and SMRT - has thus drawn up the three guidelines that will be spelt out in operating contracts.

The first such contract is expected to be up for tender by the end of this month.

It is for a route parcel in the west, consisting of 24 existing and two new services in Clementi, Jurong and Bukit Batok. They will operate out of the new depot off Jurong West Avenue 2, from the second half of 2016.

Yesterday, the Singapore National Employers Federation, unions, and transport operators welcomed the PTTC guidelines.

National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Ong Chin Ang said the union had held more than 50 engagement sessions with bus drivers to "garner credible feedback from the ground" in contributing to the PTTC guidelines.

Australian bus operator Tower Transit, which has assembled a team to bid for routes here, said: "These are very clear rules of engagement and, as such, they will ensure a level playing field for all companies when preparing their tender."

The new contracting model paves the way for the bus industry to receive more direct government subsidies.

It is expected to free operators from the tension of having to balance revenue and service standards.

They will also be freed from having to acquire and hold on to operating assets which translate into hefty depreciation charges on their profit-and-loss accounts.

The Government will own all infrastructural and operating assets.

Operators will thus be able to focus solely on meeting service standards, which are expected to rise over time.

Transport workers' union welcomes PTTC guidelines
By Sharon See, Channel NewsAsia, 16 Sep 2014

The National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) has welcomed the employment guidelines issued by the Public Transport Tripartite Committee (PTTC), saying it is pleased that the job security of bus workers has been addressed.

The union has been working closely with the PTTC to ensure its concerns have been taken into account.

One of the main issues discussed was whether the long-term career prospects of bus workers would be affected, with bus service contracts lasting five to seven years. "In fact, this is the top concern of the union," said Mr Ong Chin Ang, executive secretary at NTWU. "Whether are we going to move from permanent employment to become temporary employment of five to seven years - how does it affect our workers' welfare and terms of employment?"

"So we are glad that in the tripartite deliberation, we had raised this issue and I think that the LTA (Land Transport Authority) has agreed that they will ask any potential bidder or incoming operator to incorporate manpower development policies and career development for our bus captains and related workers into the tender specifications," he added.

Another of the union's concerns is how any potential foreign operator would take to such terms. Mr Ong said that foreign operators are likely to be less familiar with Singapore's employment norms and how the tripartite partnership works.

As such, the PTTC requires non-unionised companies to grant direct recognition to the union if more than half of their employees are union members. Of the 10,000 bus workers in Singapore, 90 per cent are union members.

Under the guidelines, incoming operators need to offer affected employees similar terms of employment for at least a year. Mr Ong explained: "This is really to provide a stability period, in particular for the new operator coming from overseas. They are not familiar with our local market situation, local labour law and our industrial relations.

"So it is important to have this sort of stabilisation period to let them understand better and to provide them the opportunity to discuss with the union and the workers what sort of new packages they want to offer to the workers.

"As a union, of course we welcome the incoming operator to provide better terms and conditions for our workers. We are also mindful that we have to make sure that this is sustainable. We do not want to see them make a huge adjustment in the salary and three years later, they go bust. And I think it will cause a lot of pain to our workers. That is not something that we want to see as well."


Even after one year, operators cannot unilaterally cut back on the employment terms without approval from the union or authorities. Operators said that the possibility of retrenchment is low due to a shortage of bus drivers.

Mr Roger Wong, general manager of Woodlands Transport Service, said: "For bus captains, I do not think there is a possibility of retrenchment because there is a severe shortage of bus captains in the market at this moment. And we foresee down the road that the shortage will continue. The only issue is how we are going to retain these bus drivers to continue to work with us."

However, Mr Wong also expressed concern that incoming operators may end up with workers employed under different schemes if they have to be hired under the same terms as before.

He added: "This would create three types of salary scales in one company - the existing two operators and our own. This might create an imbalance among the employees, the drivers - while working in the same company but are under a different type of salary scale. We would have to think out of the box and provide even better salary packages to attract them to join us on a new package."


SMRT CEO Mr Desmond Kuek is confident that his company would have no problems assimilating people from other companies into his organisation. "Having people on different schemes is not something which is new to SMRT. People may start from different platforms, different standards ... but when they come in to the company, we look forward to assimilating all of them harmoniously into one workforce," he said.

"If there are improvements to the scheme that can bring everybody more closely together under the same HR policies, I think it is something which we certainly look forward to - especially in terms of assimilating workers harmoniously into a single workforce, regardless of where they may have joined us from," Mr Kuek added.

Mr Gan Juay Kiat, CEO of SBS Transit, also expressed his support for the PTTC recommendations. He said: "Should we ever have to give up packages, we would like to ensure that the staff are taken well care of by the new operators. So this thing about the one year to protect the terms and conditions of service is something that we strongly support.

"Obviously for any operator, after the one year and if he values the worker, he has to negotiate with the union and the workers to ensure that any new terms and conditions should be no worse off than what they are currently enjoying. And that is the fundamental principle - that even after the one year, we hope that whichever is the new operator will still continue to adopt that spirit of 'no worse off' when they negotiate and harmonise."

Tower Transit, one of the foreign operators which has expressed interest in bidding for bus contracts in Singapore, has said that it welcomes the guidelines.

Ms Heather Haselgrove, a spokesperson for Tower Transit, said: "The terms and conditions will be set by the LTA in the invitation to tender and every company bidding to provide bus services will have to comply with them. As such, it is a level playing field for all companies. Tower Transit welcomes the announcement and recognises that it is important that employees are protected during the transition to the Government Contracting Model."

The tender for the first parcel of bus routes is expected to be released by early October.

Post by SMRT.

Bus captains with corporals' pay?
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 20 Sep 2014

IN THE last several years, there have been many attempts to raise the status of bus drivers and the appeal of driving a bus as a career.

The need to do so came into sharp focus when 171 SMRT bus drivers from China went on strike over pay and living conditions in 2012.

Stricter regulations regarding the hiring of foreign workers, and Singapore's fast-expanding public bus fleet in the face of soaring ridership have also made this goal imperative.

This month, two more initiatives were rolled out.

Last week, SMRT and the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability joined hands to create a more structured career advancement path for drivers.

And this week, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo announced steps to safeguard the job security and benefits of bus drivers in the new government contracting regime.

Bus contracting could see an operator losing certain route parcels if it fails to meet service standards. Mrs Teo said employees must be offered a job by firms which take over the routes of their current employers. And the terms cannot be worse than what the drivers have been enjoying.

On Thursday, a reader of The Straits Times also wrote in to remind the newspaper that it should refrain from calling bus drivers "bus drivers". They should be addressed, he said, as "bus captains" - a term coined by the operators some 15 years ago to make the job of piloting a bus more dignified.

While all these are admirable steps, the crux of the issue is still pay. Driving a bus does not pay very well.

For instance, before the latest round of adjustments made last year, SMRT drivers earned about $2,500 a month, including overtime pay.

After the adjustment, local drivers could earn around $3,600 with overtime. (Comparable rates at SBS Transit were not available, but the company said a local driver in his first year of work can earn $2,700 a month with overtime, based on a 52-hour week.)

It is painfully clear the pre-adjustment figure was dismal. The revised figure is a huge jump in percentage terms, and puts the earning of a driver in the ballpark of the national median income from work.

It sounds decent, but it comes with 60-hour weeks. Yes, Singaporeans in general work long hours, but a 60-hour work week is still in the upper limits.

And unlike a desk job or production line work, 60 hours on the road takes a lot out of a person. Especially when he is behind the wheel of a 12m-long vehicle carrying 70 passengers, stopping and starting every 400m or so. On top of that, he faces heavy city traffic, parked cars in bus lanes, and ill-located bus stops that require him to occasionally filter across three lanes to a junction just 40m away - with no one giving way.

All that for an income that a taxi driver clocking the same hours can quite easily exceed.

Last week, SMRT launched a recruitment campaign to woo part-time drivers. It is targeted at people who do not want to or cannot work full-time.

These part-timers will drive during the morning and evening peaks, when more buses are required on the road.

The salary is $10-$12 an hour, which is not a lot. In fact, unskilled part-time wait staff at a restaurant can earn as much, excluding tips.

SMRT says it cannot pay more than what a full-timer is getting, which is roughly $15 an hour ($3,600 divided by 240 hours per month).

Well, if bus operators are having difficulty filling positions with $15 an hour (hence, they are still reliant on foreign labour), it is unlikely they will have much luck with $10-$12 rates.

So, what is the solution? Well, perhaps differentiating the benefits for full-timers and part-timers can be explored.

Pay both similar rates (since they essentially do the same job), but give full-timers more benefits, such as comprehensive medical and dental packages, annual leave, and ex-gratia bonuses.

Or raise driver salaries some more. That would be the ideal route. With the imminent competitive bus contracting system, there is certainly room for this, since operators can factor in better remuneration packages into their bids.

At the end of the day, if we want to make a job more appealing, and if we want to raise professionalism and prestige, a reasonable salary must be the starting point.

It is futile calling them captains, when the disparity between title and pay is so wide.

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