The authorities’ emphasis on ‘proper channels’ for aggrieved workers since the SMRT bus drivers’ strike influences public opinion about workers taking collective action beyond state-sanctioned boundaries. Rhetoric about ‘legitimate processes and avenues’ raises political questions about the effectiveness of such processes, not just from a legal perspective, but a justice-oriented one. In situations where power relations are grossly asymmetrical, how do existing channels operate? Does our grievance culture mitigate against just outcomes for workers, despite there being ‘laws in place’? Are there discrepancies between enforcement measures and employment laws, to the detriment of workers? What are workers’ own perceptions of these ‘proper channels’ and how have their own experiences with mediating authorities affected their confidence (or lack thereof) in such processes? If indeed there are systemic flaws in our labour relations framework that disadvantage workers, what manner of social and political reforms are required to bring about fairer workplaces?
Workfair believes these are critical questions for Singapore and all who work and live here. We also note that despite the intense media attention on SMRT and the strike, details of recruitment processes, working conditions and workers’ negotiations with management and state authorities, from the perspective of SMRT bus drivers, remain scant. Here is our first story, told to us by a former SMRT bus driver (there are more to come).
In early 2010, about 200 migrant Chinese bus drivers from SMRT wrote and submitted a petition to the Ministry of Manpower to seek redress for their grievances. Workfair understands that several workers who were involved in the industrial action in November last year also signed this petition.
The bus drivers who signed the petition were unhappy that their living conditions were poor, their passports were kept by the company and that they were discriminated against in annual bonus payments. They also complained that the contracts which they signed in China were different to the one that SMRT offered them when they arrived in Singapore.
40 year old Lin Hui, who was with SMRT for two years, told us that the decision to write the petition was borne out of the drivers’ frustrations that requests for their concerns to be addressed went unheeded.
“We were ignored when we spoke to the management, and when some of us approached the union, they said that since we are from China and are ‘contract workers’, they were unable to assist us.”
When the petition was submitted to the Ministry of Manpower, a meeting was arranged and Lin Hui was there to meet with the officer assigned to the case. According to him, the Ministry of Manpower did not do much to assist. The officer informed him that the only thing the MOM could do was to help them retrieve their passports, and that they had to resolve the rest of the issues raised in the petition by themselves with the company. Even so, their passports remained with the company and were not returned to them. Frustrated with the outcome of the complaint, Lin Hui resigned shortly after and went back to China.
(SCANNED IMAGE OF THE PETITION: Click to enlarge)
~ Below is an English translation of the petition ~
A letter to the Ministry of Manpower
We are more than two hundred SMRT bus drivers from China, and there are some problems that we hope the Ministry of Manpower can come forward to help us resolve:
1) The dormitories provided by the company does not allow for normal rest, which has resulted in us having to start the day and perform a highly dangerous job with fatigued bodies and bleary eyes. (Because of our inconsistent work schedules, we interrupt each other’s rest time.)
We are drivers and we drive buses that have many Singaporean passengers. We cannot show any trace of fatigue as even a blink of an eye may lead to an accident and cause the death of dozens of people, resulting in the loss of happiness for many families. If we fall asleep, the consequences would be unthinkable! As such, we can afford to only drink and not eat, but we cannot afford to not have a normal environment to rest in. <To observe and understand our specific circumstances, please go to 27 woodlands sector 1 #02-70 singapore 738252>
2) To receive the bonuses which are rightfully ours.
a) We are official employees who have gone through the probation period. Where not addressed and stipulated in the contract, we should receive the same treatment as other workers.
b) Our company’s annual notice of the award of bonuses is addressed to all workers in the company, and does not mention the exception of Chinese workers.
c) In December 2008, when the company was giving out bonuses, we had asked the company about matters relating to our bonuses, and the company’s reply was: Chinese workers will receive bonuses for two years as a lump sum when they have completed their 2 year contract and are about to return to their country.
3) To retrieve our passports for going home to settle any matters or for going overseas for a holiday.
a) Passports are personal documents. (Apart from the issuing authority, no other units and organs are allowed to withhold this document.)
b) We have holidays and money to buy tickets. We are here to work and not to be imprisoned.
4) Insist that the company produce the contract which we signed and fingerprinted at the point of recruitment in China.
a) The photocopied version of the contract issued by the company is inconsistent with the original contract.
b) We only recognize the contract which was signed in China.
We hope and look forward to the resolution of these issues. Thank you!
Below are the workers’ name list and signatures. [Not shown to protect the workers’ identities]
~ ARTICLE IN CHINESE ~