Striking Singapore bus drivers clash with state

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

In the first strike in more than a quarter of a century in Singapore, 171 bus drivers from mainland China stayed in their dormitories and did not work on November 26th. Another 88 did not report for work on November 27th.

Now four Chinese nationals have been charged with inciting SMRT bus drivers to take part in the illegal strike action over claims that they earn less than their Singaporean or Malaysian counterparts.

If convicted, they could be jailed for up to 12 months, fined up to 2,000 Singaporean dollars (€1,260) or both.

Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese, and there are an estimated 200,000 migrant workers from mainland China, working mostly on building sites and in shops, factories and restaurants.

There are tensions over the influx of mainland Chinese in the past few years to fill a labour shortage in the prosperous island state.

Singapore has a policy of zero tolerance on industrial action, requiring consultations between workers, management and government. It is extremely difficult to stage legal industrial action.

Strikes in essential services, such as among bus drivers, are illegal unless employers are given two weeks’ notice, and the strike action notice has to be signed by the employer.

SMRT is one of Singapore’s two main bus companies.

The workers – He Junling, Gao Yueqiang, Liu Xiangying and Wang Xianjie – were unhappy with their salary increments after recent adjustments made by the company.

One of the drivers is accused of inciting his colleagues by posting a message on Baidu.combemoaning the “insults and humiliation suffered by Singapore bus drivers” and asking “where is the dignity of the People’s Republic of China bus drivers?”.

About 450 of SMRT’s 2,000 drivers are from mainland China.

While China itself does not allow independent trade unions, its commerce ministry has weighed in to express its concern over the fate of the four bus drivers. It wants involved parties to “respond to the legitimate demands of Chinese bus drivers for equal pay and treatment”, the country’s official Xinhua news agency said, citing a statement from the ministry.

The Chinese consulate plans to visit the drivers and hopes their rights will be protected.

The last legal strike in Singapore was in 1986, involving the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees’ Union and US drilling company Hydril, while the most recent illegal strike concerned Singapore Airlines pilots in 1980.

“Illegal strikes are not acceptable and have undermined the industrial harmony we have built over the years,” Singapore’s manpower ministry said in a statement.

“These instigators must be dealt with in accordance with laws.”