Singapore: Bus drivers launch first major strike in decades

Sunday, December 9, 2012
Bus drivers on strike in Singapore.

Immigrant Chinese bus drivers in Singapore began a two day strike on November 26. This is the first major strike in the tightly controlled city state since 1986.

The drivers were employed by SMRT, a state owned public transport company.

The strikers were all mainland Chinese – part of a growing number of immigrant workers in Singapore that perform low paid and menial jobs. The drivers are being paid less than local drivers for the same work. The workers are unhappy with housing provided, due to overcrowding and poor facilities.

The dispute has its origins in a new work contract imposed on the workers in July. The new contract raised the weekly wage of drivers by S$25 (almost A$20), but at the same time it also raised the hours of work.

In real terms, the new contract was a wage cut because the recalculated ratio of weekly pay to wages leaves the drivers with a lower hourly rate.

The contracts were imposed onto the workers by management without any opportunity for bargaining. Both Chinese and Singaporean drivers were unhappy with the contract. The workers tried to air their grievances through the media, petitions and direct appeals to management. Management ignored all appeals.

The final straw that triggered the strike came when the workers found the pay rise was not in their bank accounts. The drivers refused to work and stayed in their company-provided dwellings.

Buses were late and overcrowded for the first two days. On the first day, 171 drivers took part in the strike. The next day the state cracked down, the drivers' living quarters were surrounded by armed police in riot gear. Authorities issued threats of arrest and imprisonment.

Due to repression, the number of drivers on strike on the second day was reduced to 88. The strike ended a day later.

Singapore's authoritarian state cracked down on the strikers with zero tolerance. Immediately after the strike five drivers were arrested and detained without bail. A further 29 were detained and deported back to China.

Bao Feng Shan was convicted and sentenced to six weeks jail for his involvement in the strike. The others were still in custody as of December 7, being tortured and continuously interrogated without access to legal representation. If prosecuted, the three men can face up to one year in jail.

This strike is significant because it took place in a country where political demonstrations are classified as “riots” and independent unions are non-existent.

The state controls the unions and the industrial relations system through an arrangement the government calls the “tripartite model”. Under the tripartite model the labour ministry, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation form an alliance in which union officials, corporate executives and government ministers stand together.

Through the tripartite system, unions have become arms of government and big business. “Collective” bargaining in Singapore usually takes the form of management meeting with NTUC officials behind closed doors.

The NTUC -affiliated National Transport Workers Union (NTWU) gave full support to SMRTs new contract. This came as no surprise as NTWU executive secretary Ong Ye Kung is also a SMRT board member and a member of the ruling People's Action Party.

The SMRT strike could be a sign of cracks in Singapore's tripartite system. Many Singaporeans have used the internet to criticise SMRT's treatment of its workers. Many are also expressing their critical views of the tripartite labour system in blogs and social media.

For instance, Facebook user Herbert Ho said: “We are fast becoming a country that bends over for the rich and capitalizes on the plight of the poor, and I for one, am ashamed as a Singaporean for the actions toward [sic] the drivers.”

“Netizens” are also calling for unions to perform their real function and defend workers' rights. A popular tweet by journalist and blogger Kirsten Han said: “Usually you join unions for collective bargaining & rights protection. In Singapore you join a union for attractive supermarket discounts.”

In fact, the drivers' strike itself was largely organised through online media. The drivers called the strike on the Chinese language social media website Tieba Baidu.

Singapore has enjoyed economic growth in recent years, but it has been underpinned by the exploitation of an army of low paid workers, both local and from developing nations. This strike, although small, could be the spark to trigger off a new wave of unionism to challenge authoritarian rule in Singapore.

To see the potential of an emerging labour movement in Singapore, we should look to another “Asian Tiger”, South Korea. In South Korea, workers formed independent unions that got so large they were able to lead the democracy movement that overthrew military rule in 1987.

Workers have enormous power at their fingertips. A strong labour movement, acting as tribune of the people, can lead a similar fight for democratic rights in Singapore.

From GLW issue 949