It must seem like the end of days for SMRT’s management. For the uninitiated, in 2010 and 2011 the local public transport operator suffered security breaches at its depots, when vandals broke in to spray graffiti on its trains.
This was then followed by a series of train breakdowns, beginning in December 2011, affecting tens of thousands of rush hour commuters. The vandalism incident, and the breakdowns, earned SMRT instant notoriety, and a rebuke from the ruling government.
The stuff of SMRT’s nightmares.
Last week, the company was again in the headlines, this time over an “illegal strike” involving 171 PRC workers, all bus drivers. The drivers were protesting against their lower pay compared to Malaysian drivers, and the poor living conditions they had to put up with. The incident caught the watching public, including SMRT and the Ministry of Manpower, by surprise. It shouldn’t have. But more on that later.
It’s been 26 years since Singapore had its last strike, when 61 workers picketed outside American oilfield equipment company Hydril’s Tuas factory. The city-state has long had a reputation for industrial harmony, although any rank-and-file worker will very likely pour scorn at such a description.
In Singapore, its common to hear of the elite class traversing from corporate boardrooms to government bodies and back. Many members of parliament hold full-time jobs in multinational corporations, and are quick to subscribe to the ideals of free-market capitalism. Hence that constant refrain that we need cheap foreign labour, to stem the already high costs of doing business.
The NTUC-PAP-Employer combo
The rest (Lim Swee Say, Halimah Yacob, Zainal Sapari, et al) take up leadership positions in the National Trades Union Congress, the country’s biggest trade union, and one that has had a symbiotic relationship with the People’s Action Party since the early years of our nation’s independence. 98% of all unionised workers in Singapore belong to the NTUC. This tripartite relationship, a cornerstone of the Singapore economy, is a key advantage for a country that has no natural resources. Or so they tell us. In the words of NTUC, a strong, responsible and caring labour movement helps Singapore remain competitive and workers employable.
It’s not rocket science. If you have little qualifications, or you don’t have any connections to people in power, you really have no business demanding a fair wage for your indentured labour. Especially if you work for a transport company that already has a lot to worry about. Like how to continue earning fat profits while spending S$900 million to put in place an effective maintenance regime.
This is how tripartism works in Singapore. The average worker bending over backwards to meet the demands of his corporate and political masters. You’re not happy, are you? Well, you can very well find another job (or as SMRT’s drivers were told, you can resign and go to SBS).
It’s interesting to note that earlier this year, SMRT had increased the salaries of its drivers. However, with this increase in salary a driver’s work week was also lengthened, from 5 to 6 days per week. This would ultimately lead to a loss of overtime, and with it, a loss of income. It would also result in less rest for drivers, given the very possible, very unpleasant situation of having to work for 12 days straight (the one-day off could be given on any day of the week).
Cheaper. Better. Faster. 12 days in a row.
These changes were simply announced by SMRT’s management, without any negotiation with existing drivers. Subsequent petitions to Lim Swee Say, to reinstate a five-day work week, while keeping the increased salary, fell on deaf ears. In their petition the bus drivers highlighted that:
The move (salary increase) was a laudable one, no doubt motivated by consideration of management for the welfare of bus drivers, and to address competitive pressures in the bus industry in general.
What a naive bunch of sods.
I take that back. The job of a SMRT bus driver is an unenviable one. They work 9 to 11 hours a day, with only eight minutes of break time between rides. When road traffic conditions work against them that eight minute break can dwindle down to nothing. They have half an hour of meal time to last them that entire shift.
For the PRC drivers who went on strike, their long working hours are made all the more miserable by the abject conditions of their crammed accommodation. Drivers on different shifts were placed in the same room, making it difficult to get much-needed rest. Even SMRT conceded that they could have provided better housing for the drivers.
SMRT’s top management visiting the China drivers at their dorm
The drivers, whatever their nationality, really deserved more pay. Instead, what they got was more work, for less. They were cheated, plain and simple. Cheated by the recruiters who brought them into Singapore with the promise of a better life. Cheated by a corporation motivated by the bottom line.
At the centre of this petition brouhaha was failed PAP candidate Ong Ye Kung, the former secretary general of the NTUC and an independent director on SMRT’s board, tasked with the case of handling the unhappy workers. Conflict of interest? You bet. Ong resigned from NTUC barely two months after the petition was first written, though he denies his leaving being related to the whole saga. He remains on SMRT’s board.
I admit. I have said some nasty things about PRC drivers. In retrospect, perhaps they are a group deserving pity. We live in a country unforgiving in its march to more and more economic growth. And in that march we have turned a blind eye to the depressing lives of the many foreign men and women who make this place a better place to live in. The ones who build our homes, sweep our streets and drive the buses and trains that move us from Point A to B.
The aftermath, for those on the sadder side of the income divide, isn’t pretty. 5 men will go to jail for their part in the strikes, for standing up in what they thought was right, even if the law didn’t think so. 29 others will be going back home to China, their dreams of a better existence shattered. The mainstream media (MSM) will have you believe that Singapore is better off without them, fiends out to tarnish the industrial harmony this country has worked so hard to build.
The remaining drivers? Let off with a stern warning, and no further increase in pay. Of course this was announced on Monday morning, a full week after the strikes first started and with the ringleaders swiftly arrested. Cue the Government’s nod of approval. Mr Lim Biow Chuan, member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport puts it this way, “What the CEO has done is the right thing. From the perspective of the employee, if you feel that your salary is not right, you should actually speak to your employers about it. And if at the end of the day, employers are not prepared to increase the salary, you should then look for other employment.”
“I think it is also a wrong signal to send if the company adjusts its salary upwards because of actions by employees to force their opinion on their employer to make adjustments to the salary.” Tripartism. What a riot.
The systemic rotting of a company creaking under the weight of its responsibility continues. While the Government chooses to flog SMRT publicly for its lapses, in maintenance, security and HR, it knows that it also must share part of the blame. Its continued practice of bringing in foreign workers to feed the economy has strained our country’s public transport system. And in that strain SMRT selected the most cost-effective solution it could find to its manpower problem. A solution that ultimately backfired.