There are some 1.3 million foreign workers in a population of four million people in this small island state, which was recently ranked as the world’s richest country, with a per capita income of 56,532 dollars a year, by the World Wealth Report 2012 by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank.
But most of the foreign workers – in fact some 931,000 of them according to figures as of June 2012 – are low-paid unskilled labour from neighbouring Asian countries, who earn nowhere near that figure.
The 171 bus drivers from China who went on strike by taking medical leave at the same time on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 were earning about 980 dollars a month. They were complaining about receiving lower pay than Malaysian and Singaporean drivers, inadequate rest days and poor dormitory accommodation.
The government, well known for its pro-business policies and tough attitudes towards labour protests, acted swiftly by charging five of the drivers for breaking local “no-strike” laws and cancelling the work permits of and deporting 29 of the drivers who went on strike.
Since then, one of them has been sentenced to six weeks in jail, while four others are out on bail and appeared in court Wednesday for a pre-trial conference.
“We cannot let these Chinese workers take the rap for asking only for fair employment. And we cannot agree to their punishment when all the processes that exist in our name denied them the basic right to have their grievances heard,” wrote Vincent Wijeysinghe, an opposition Singapore Democratic Party member and a labour rights activist, in a blog posting which went viral here.
Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said in the immediate aftermath of the strike that “by taking matters into their own hands, the drivers have clearly crossed the line.”
He declared the strike illegal, because public transport is an essential service where an employer needs to give 14 days’ notice of the intent to go on strike. Under this argument, the strikers’ ring leaders were arrested and charged for breaking Singaporean laws.
Economics lecturer Walter Edgar Theseira of Nanyang Technological University argued in an interview with Yahoo Singapore that the strike and its aftermath had demonstrated “potentially serious vulnerabilities” that arise from Singapore’s significant reliance on low-cost foreign labour.
He also added that rather than provide high enough salaries to lure Singaporean workers to unskilled jobs, they offer just enough wages to attract people from countries like China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Philippines, thus creating labour conditions almost similar to the conditions in those countries.
John Gee, president of the migrant workers rights group Transient Workers Count Too, told IPS in an interview that the dispute between the Chinese migrant bus drivers and the partly government-owned SMRT bus company has been going on for at least six months. “Though workers may have broken the law, it needs to be taken into account that they may have been provoked,” he added.
Two main issues have come to the limelight as a result of the strike. One is the different wages paid to workers from different countries who do the same type of work, and the other is the hefty job placement fees that agents charge the workers for finding them jobs in Singapore.
A number of drivers told a Straits Times reporter that they paid more than 25,000 yuan (4,000 dollars) to Chinese agents to secure a job in Singapore.
Businesswoman Elsie Kwok defended the Singaporean employers’ policy of discriminating on the basis of nationality in their pay scales. “I have employed many girls from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and China as sales assistants. There are differences in their knowledge levels and attitude to the job. So it’s fair to pay some lower than the others,” she told IPS.
Gee disagrees. “Government has always said that they leave determination of salaries to market forces. Employers always argue on these grounds (to discriminate on pay scales). But it has to do with national stereotypes,” he argued.
When IPS asked the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) about the fairness of such wage disparities, a spokeswoman said: “Migrant labour should be paid fair and reasonable wages according to the work they do which commensurate their relevant skills and experience level. A more sustainable way is to enhance the quality of foreign labour so that this can better meet both supply and demand as well as cause our businesses to remain competitive.”
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam warned this month that Singapore was facing a “permanently tight labour market” and business must look to increase productivity to boost business growth. Singapore’s jobless rate at 1.9 percent is one of the lowest in the world.
In an interview with IPS, Wijeysinghe argued that the NTUC, because of its close association with the government, “appears to advocate more for government and corporations than for workers.”
He also said that although the government had recently pushed through legislation to put a cap on the placement fees agents could charge workers, the problem could not be solved without bilateral initiatives, and the “government has systematically refused to work bilaterally, blaming the agency system in sender countries.”
Many labour rights advocates here argue that it is the hefty placement fees charged by the agency system, where agents in both sender and receiver countries are involved, that creates apathy among migrant workers when it comes to discrimination and unfair treatment.
“When workers are sent back home prematurely, we have found many cases where they return worse off than they were before (because of these fees paid to agents),” Gee said. “A regional compact which is enforceable is needed on fees and charges,” he argued, adding that migrant workers also needed to be unionised in independent unions.
“If they (Chinese bus drivers) were unionised, the union worker could go to the boss and discuss complaints without naming the worker – so he couldn’t be sent home,” he said. Under Singapore law, an employer can unilaterally cancel a work permit and send the worker home within 48 hours.