In November 2012, around 180 Chinese bus drivers employed by the state-controlled Singapore Mass Rapid Transit Corp (SMRT) staged a highly publicised strike over pay and living conditions.
The Singapore authorities adopted a zero tolerance approach to what it claimed was a disruption of essential services in the city and arrested five of the alleged strike organizers. They were later sentenced to up to six weeks in jail before being deported back to China. Another 29 drivers were deported without trial almost immediately after the strike.
China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang talked to one of the 29 deported drivers, surnamed Jiang, soon after he returned to China. They discussed the reasons for the strike, the response of the Singaporean government to it and the harsh reality of being a Chinese migrant worker in a city that sees you merely as a resource to be exploited and discarded when no longer useful.
Hired on sufferance
As CLB pointed out in its 2011 research report Hired on Sufferance, Chinese migrant workers have a very tenuous existence in Singapore. They are entirely dependent on the whim of their employer who can cancel their employment visa with virtual impunity at any time. Moreover, the authorities can place anyone they see as a trouble maker on an official blacklist, denying them future employment in the city state.
This was precisely what happened to Jiang and his colleagues, who, he claimed, were arbitrarily singled out for retribution:
No department contacted us from the very beginning. We feel that the Singaporean government handled this incident in an unfair and inappropriate manner; they did not investigate thoroughly. We are just being made scapegoats.
Like most Chinese migrant workers in Singapore, Jiang paid an employment agent at home around 30,000 yuan as an “initial investment.” He had hoped to recoup that investment after one year’s work but, like many others, Jiang soon discovered that arbitrary fees, deductions and changes to his work schedule meant that just breaking even became an uphill struggle. In his first three months in Singapore, Jiang was on probation and only received the drivers’ basic wage, then, after just ten months on the job, the strike broke out and he was deported back to China.
My greatest wish was to at least earn the same amount of money that I spent on arranging this overseas placement in the first place. I want my fees reimbursed and my name removed from the blacklist.
Unequal pay unequal treatment
The immediate cause of the strike was a long-running dispute over wage levels. The Chinese workers had complained on numerous occasions about unequal pay at SMRT – slogan “moving people, enhancing lives.” So when they were offered a pay increase of just S$75, while the company's Malaysian, Indian and Singaporean drivers got increases of around S$200, in addition to other benefits, the Chinese drivers became increasingly frustrated.
They discovered that, as Chinese nationals, they were specifically excluded from the company’s wage adjustment mechanism that applied to other drivers. In fact, Jiang said, the Chinese drivers were only offered this smaller pay increase after the other workers’ pay had already been increased on three separate occasions.
There were also discriminatory shift arrangements which limited the Chinese drivers’ earning power, Jiang said:
Some of the jobs could obviously make more money. They were all given to other workers.
Jiang complained that Chinese drivers were never given the chance to earn overtime by working on statutory holidays despite being away from their families and therefore being most suited to working during the holidays.
Chinese workers had no say in the terms and conditions of their employment. Like many migrant workers in Singapore, their employment contract was in English and the drivers had to rely on a verbal translation into Chinese. They were not given a Chinese copy of the contract. And Jiang said the terms of the contract concerning working hours and days-off were changed unilaterally by the company without prior notice:
The company changed the working system; we used to work five days a week with two days off. If we worked extra days we usually got higher over-time payments. Since Chinese workers did not get bonuses and are dependent on overtime, this change affected us disproportionately.
The second major grievance of the Chinese bus drivers concerned their living conditions in Singapore. Like many migrants, they were housed in dormitories located well away from the city’s main residential area. Jiang’s employment agency in China had painted a picture of clean and comfortable dormitories. The reality was very different:
The living conditions were totally different from what had been promised by the employment agency before I went to Singapore. They claimed some of the accommodations even had the Internet and a canteen. That was not true of course. The room was overcrowded with seven, eight, sometimes even ten people squeezed inside. The washroom was horrible.
Some of my roommates worked in the morning and some at night, so we were always being disturbed and could not get a good rest. In the beginning, the workers who could not get used to the poor conditions, including myself, lost a lot of weight.
The role of the trade union
On the day of the strike, 26 November, SMRT arranged a meeting with the workers. This one-off meeting was supposed to provide a platform for the workers and management to reach an agreement. However, the meeting failed to resolve the strike and merely highlighted the lack of effective channels of communication prior to the strike, and in particular the failure of the Singaporean trade union to represent the Chinese bus drivers, Jiang said:
I learnt from the newspaper that some workers in another company had joined the trade union, and that they could negotiate with their employers more effectively.
If we could join a trade union, we would not have had to go on strike; we could have resorted to other legal means to resolve the dispute.
Some of Jiang’s colleagues at SMRT had applied for union membership but their applications were quickly turned down, he said:
Some of the senior workers applied to the union but failed to get in. As soon as you revealed which company you worked for, they refused to let you to join.
SMRT is a Singapore-listed corporation, majority-owned by Temasek, the company set up in 1974 to “hold and manage investments and assets previously held by the Singapore Government.” Temasek is solely-owned by the Singapore Minister for Finance.
Although foreign workers can technically join a trade union in Singapore, they cannot hold office or be employed by the union. Moreover, Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) is state-controlled body that does not see its job as representing the interests of workers, and especially not migrant workers. As Yeo Guat Kwang, the co-chairman of the NTUC’s migrant workers centre told CLB in a 2010 interview, migrant worker rights will always be subordinated to the national interest:
When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights. We are looking at it on a need basis... Like it or not, we need to sustain and grow an economy that is able to generate an annual per capita [GDP] of US$35,000. At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.
There are at least one million foreign workers in Singapore, making up about one third of the total workforce. They are primarily employed in construction, transport, manufacturing and services, in other words the low-paid and dangerous jobs Singaporean citizens are reluctant to do. These are precisely the jobs that require dedicated and effective trade union representation but at present they are the positions least well served by the NTUC.
This interview was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in seven episodes in April 2013.