I have three points to make about the industrial action undertaken by bus drivers of SMRT Corp earlier this week. 171 of them, all recruited from China, failed to show up for work last Monday; 88 were absent the following day (Source: Straits Times, 1 Dec 2012, SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO).
My 3 points are:
1. There should be equal pay for equal work;
2. The government is shooting itself in its own foot by abandoning principle #1 above;
3. The government pretends there is a process for labour justice, but there isn’t and its absence sows the seed for future instability.
The drivers’ chief grouse was that they were paid less than Singaporean and Malaysian drivers. In particular, a recently announced bonus offer applied only to Singaporeans and Malaysians (at different rates), but did not benefit them. Their further complaints include bad housing.
The government quickly labelled it an illegal strike and has now moved to charge four of them — He Jun Ling, 32, Gao Yue Qiang, 32, Liu Xiangying, 33, and Wang Xianjie, 39 –with “instigating the illegal strike”. They face a possible 12-month jail term.
SMRT Corp is 54-percent owned by Temasek Holdings, the government’s investment vehicle.
Through the week, the mainstream media, always a friend of the government, highlighted the Manpower Ministry’s claims that the drivers chose not to use the dispute resolution processes allegedly available at the ministry. It then carried several analyses purporting to explain why foreigners should be paid less — because there were higher recruitment charges, housing costs, etc.
What happened to ‘equal pay for equal work’?
No space was given to arguing that the principle of equal pay for equal work is an important one. Without it, women would still be paid less than men, and employees of minority ethnicity might also be at a disadvantage in most firms. Today it may be someone else victimised by inequality, tomorrow it may be you. We abandon this principle at our own peril. This would be particularly ironic in a city-state that wants to believe in meritocracy.
One might be tempted to argue that the principle should be restricted to citizens, and that equality is a “privilege” that does not apply to foreigners. Here I am reminded of the Old Testament rule (Leviticus 25:44-46) that one may enslave those “from the nations around you”, but not of your own kind — which even modern-day Christians consider obsolete. Such a reading down of equality is abhorrent; it is also contrary to contemporary understanding of human rights. Equal treatment is part of the dignity we accord to all humans, not just those who carry the same colour of passport.
For less lofty reasons of realpolitick, the Singapore government should also note very carefully the statement issued by China’s Commerce Ministry: it said it was “paying very close attention to this labor dispute” and that it “hopes related parties will properly handle and respond positively to the reasonable demands of Chinese drivers to be paid the same wages for doing the same work and be treated fairly” (Source: Reuters, emphasis mine). If we, on the other hand, still believe that Singapore should live up to Leviticus, we will have no end of disputes with neighbouring countries.
Foreign workers should be costlier than hiring locally
I will also argue that the government shoots itself in its own foot if it interprets equal pay to mean something net of all costs related to bringing in foreign workers. This seems to be the justification for lower pay for Chinese drivers. I see in the mainstream press mentions of higher recruitment costs, housing costs, training costs, etc. While at first sight, the concept seems reasonable, in actual fact, it completely undermines the government’s own effort to dampen demand for foreign workers.
The incentive to hire Singaporeans first is highly dependent on making it more expensive to hire foreigners. If employers are allowed to recover their costs of employing foreigners from foreign workers themselves, then employers will see no disincentive to bringing in foreigners. So, all these costs associated with hiring foreign workers should be on top of equal pay, not deducted from equal pay.
The government is being foolish to stand by SMRT in this instance, by shouting “zero tolerance” and being so quick to punish the workers involved.
Speaking of housing costs, a figure of $275 a month was mentioned in passing in a Straits Times story:
In July, the Chinese drivers got a $75 increment, bringing their starting pay to $1,075, versus $1,350 for their Malaysian counterparts and $1,625 for Singaporeans.
After the $275 that the company says it spends on lodging for each Chinese driver, their remuneration package was on a par with the Malaysians’.
Malaysian drivers do not have company lodging, and mostly commute to and from homes across the Causeway.
— Straits Times, 1 December 2012, Strike broke before notice of pay rise
The drivers say they are housed eight persons to a room. Whoever is operating that room is charging $2,200 for it.
And here’s the interesting fact: I know from my volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) that dormitory operators generally charge companies that lease dorm rooms from them, monthly rates of $50 – $100 per worker. And the SMRT bus driver finds $275 deducted from his pay? Well, well, well, somebody somewhere is making a handsome profit out of this pay deduction.
Independent unions an important safety valve
My third point mirrors the statement issued by TWC2, which you can see in full here: Link. The government and the mainstream media have been proclaiming that avenues of dispute resolution exists via official channels, and suggest that the workers were wrong (and deserve no sympathy) not to use those channels.
“A disproportionate amount of attention has focused on events from 26 November when preceding developments that precipitated the workers’ action are equally pertinent. A key concern should be how long the workers must wait to have their grievances addressed by management. This leads to another question of what the consequences are for employers who, through their action or inaction, have aggravated the situation. If ’zero tolerance’ is the prescribed policy for workers engaged in illegal strikes, what should the consequences be for their employers who fail to adequately address their concerns?
There are claims that the workers should have taken their case through due processes available. Drawing on TWC2′s experience, there is a gap between what is offered on paper as due process and what actually happens. Given the disputes involved in this case, had the SMRT workers approached the MOM, they might have been told that their employers had not violated any Singapore law and therefore it is beyond the ken of the Ministry to assist.”
The problem is that those ministry channels are only available when there is a dispute over the terms of a contract or if employment law has been breached; neither condition applies here. The government therefore is misleading the public by suggesting that it had processes to help. It does not. Our mainstream media do our public no service by not putting their brains to use before printing slavishly what the government says.
The government has also said, repeatedly, that workers should have “discussed” their issues with management. Knowing Chinese workers, I am sure they have, many times and loudly. It’s in their nature. The problem is that the system is stacked against them. It’s a very Singaporean system: where lower-rank people don’t have rights to justice, but can only plead for better treatment. It’s a microcosm of the political system this government has created. Citizens have no substantive rights; they can only plead for their wishes to be taken into account. There’s a term for this: The petitionary state.
Wage bargaining everywhere else is conducted between unions and employers. Employers hold the nuclear option of termination. Unions hold the nuclear option of calling a mass walk-out. The bargaining that results may be robust, but is, at least, meaningful.
As some commentators have already pointed out, this SMRT incident is forcing Singapore to address the issue of unionising foreign workers. Left unsaid is whether the government-linked union NTUC is the right vehicle. Of course it is not. For half a century, it has served as a whip helping the government keep Singaporean workers in line; it would be even more useless for foreign workers.
All workers, foreign and local, need independent unions. Far from what the mainstream rhetoric will no doubt try to convince us, they will be good for Singapore. It is a truism that systems must have safety valves. There must be ways to negotiate and rebalance rather than try to keep the screws on so tight till the whole shebang blows apart. Especially in times of rising income inequality, the stresses are growing.
To keep insisting that the old ways of command and control must continue, that the law and media must serve the supremacy of executive government and its related companies, and workers must work and behave, is a sure recipe for a day when things really blow apart.