On 26 November, 171 SMRT bus drivers from the People’s Republic of China did not report for work because of unfair wages and inadequate living conditions. They had raised their concerns to the management on several occasions with little success. On 27 November, 88 drivers continued to stay away from work. On both days, the workers did not conduct any public assembly or protest.
Four drivers were arrested for conducting an “illegal strike”. They face up to a year in prison and / or a fine of up to $2,000. Another driver was sentenced to six weeks’ jail after he pleaded guilty to a similar charge. Another 29 bus drivers were deported.
The Ministry of Manpower registered its concerns about a severe breakdown in labour relations and management at SMRT. However, the State has yet to hold neither SMRT nor any of its key officers accountable.
This case raises several questions:
a) Was it fair for the bus drivers to be charged or deported before the extent of SMRT’s failures had been fully determined?
b) If ‘zero tolerance’ is the prescribed policy for workers engaged in “illegal strikes”, why is there no accountability for employers who fail to adequately address their concerns?
c) What are the limitations in our laws, policies and procedures which contributed to the workers’ grievances and the lack of resolution of these grievances?
d) Foreign workers doing low paid work are most in need of the protection of a trade union. Why were none of the workers members of the union?
This incident highlights two issues:
a) The huge imbalance of power between corporations and their workers - an issue of urgent relevance to Singaporeans and people working in Singapore;
b) The State’s complicity in promoting this imbalance by focussing disproportionately on the “illegality” of the workers’ actions. The State, by punishing an act of civil disobedience carried out in opposition to an unfair and exploitative situation, effectively reinforces the systemic flaw.
We, the people of Singapore, demand that the State acts to:
a) Redress the imbalance of power between corporations and workers;
b) Protect all workers against inequality, exploitation and discrimination in the workplace;
c) Ensure that the bus drivers are given a fair trial and that all the parties that are responsible for the situation giving rise to the “strike” are held accountable.