A one-day ‘strike’ with long-term consequences?

The striking bus drivers in Singapore have agreed to return to work. That was quick. The drivers from China who refused to go to work on Monday morning agreed to return to duty after talks with the transport operator SMRT’s management in the evening.

I won’t be surprised, however, if the government treats the incident seriously and there are significant long-term developments. Public transport is a big issue in Singapore. And it is unheard of for people to go on strike or refuse to go to work in Singapore.

That the protesters were foreigners makes it all the more complicated. Singapore lets in foreigners despite local resentment because it needs more workers. Then if the foreign workers refuse to do the work they were brought in for, there is bound to be anger.

It was countries in the Gulf that had to deal with protests by foreign workers, particularly in the construction sector. This was unknown in Singapore.

The Chinese drivers were reported to be unhappy about their Malaysian colleagues getting higher pay rises from SMRT, which also operates taxis and a commuter rail network. The company said it would address the drivers’ grievances within a week.  A total of 102 drivers had refused to go to work on Monday, it added, denying earlier reports that more than 200 drivers had been involved.

The company said it had been hiring bus drivers from China since 2008. The report did not say why the Chinese got less than the Malaysians.

Singapore has been facing transport problems of late.  The MRT commuter rail networks operated by SMRT and SBS – which also runs buses and taxis like SMRT – have been prone to breakdowns and are overcrowded almost throughout the day. The former transport minister, Raymond Lim, stepped down after the 2011 general election.  The former SMRT chief executive, Saw Phaik Hwa, resigned in January.

The overcrowded trains have added to the resentment against foreigners. Singaporeans unhappy about having to compete with foreigners for jobs and housing complain that the foreign influx also adds to the overcrowding on trains.

The Chinese bus drivers’ refusal to go to work on Monday has been criticized by some. They should be sent back to China, said some on Twitter.

Maybe these were only first reactions and instant outbursts.

Others on Twitter asked why the Chinese were paid less than the Malaysians and some even praised the drivers for standing up for their “rights”.

The government will no doubt address the issue with proper care. It involves public transport and foreign workers, two sensitive issues.

Singapore unemployment at 14-year low, median income up

Singapore unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted). Data from Singapore Ministry of Manpower’s Employment Situation 2011 report.
Singapore unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted). Data from Singapore Ministry of Manpower’s Employment Situation 2011 report.

Singapore seems to have more jobs than workers. Unemployment fell to a 14-year low, dropping to just 2 per cent, in 2011 and a tight labour market pushed up wages and recruitment of foreign workers.Continue Reading

Maids and workers

There are plenty of foreign workers in Singapore. But as Philip Bowring pointed out in an article in the International Herald Tribune on Monday:

"Maids are allowed only from specified Asian countries, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka heading the list.”

And then came the rub:

"Chinese are not on the list, which leads some to allege that only ‘brown people’ or those from non-Confucian societies are to be employed in this most menial job."

Phew! But let’s face it: I have never seen a Chinese maid in Singapore. I wonder why. After all, women from China are to be found almost in every other job, as hawkers, shop assistants, production operators, karaoke lounge hostesses, tutors; so why not as maids?

Out of Singapore’s total "population of 4.35 million, 747.900 were non-residents with various kinds of work permits as of 2003," writes Bowring. "Some non-residents are professionals… but most are manual workers, sex workers and, by some estimates, about 150,000 domestic workers."

The maids especially get a raw deal, says Bowring, though the Government is trying to improve their conditions. They may be finally entitled to one day off a month. But in Hong Kong, maids are already entitled to one day off a week and all public holidays, he adds.

Bowring finds the conditions of domestic workers in Singapore "shocking". But that does not stop foreign workers from coming to Singapore.  It may be their only chance of a better life some day.

I am reminded of a Bangladeshi worker I met the other day. He services air-conditioners. But back home in Dhaka, he said, he has bought two houses; his parents live on the rental income. He has not yet married. Instead, he is taking a part-time course to improve his job prospects. Who says only high-flyers are ambitious? Some are working their way up.