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.