SINGAPORE – The four migrant Chinese bus drivers, Gao Yueqiang, Liu Xiangying, Wang Xianjie and He Junling, who were convicted of participating in an ‘illegal strike‘ in November 2012, have been released from prison and are now back in China. Gao, Liu, and Wang received a six week jail term and He received a seven week term.
A custodial sentence for taking part in a strike is severely disproportionate to the ‘offence’ that was committed, in light of the fact that the workers did not have union representation, had to endure poor living conditions and were discriminated against in basic wages and incentive payments. They were paid the least compared to their Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts, even though they were performing the same job. Despite numerous attempts to air their grievances to SMRT’s management and the Ministry of Manpower, their pleas were not taken seriously. The workers have been criminalised even though they were the ones who were exploited and oppressed.
Even though the men are no longer in Singapore, this incident and its developments deserve continued scrutiny. The strike itself raised a range of issues related to workers’ rights: violations of the principle of equal pay for equal work, the persistence of substandard housing conditions for migrant workers and the low wages earned by public transport workers such as bus drivers. There are also more fundamental questions related to the right to strike – should all workers have the right to strike and what are reasonable parameters for allowing strikes to take place? In Singapore, bus drivers are labelled ‘essential workers’, which made their strike action illegal without giving 14 days notice, amongst other conditions.
Much of the emphasis so far has been placed on punishing the ‘perpetrators’ of the ‘illegal strike’, without sufficient analysis and reflection on the state of industrial relations in Singapore and the lack of protection for low waged workers. The drivers’ complaints are not new: non-governmental organizations such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and Health Serve have raised them for many years through their advocacy and meetings with government officials and union representatives. Limited attention and resources, however, seem to have been directed to resolving them effectively.
The Singapore model of tripartism, where elected government officials, employers and union representatives are uniformly geared towards keeping the labour market flexible and conducive for business is deeply problematic. In the Singapore context, the lack of independence of the unions calls into question its ability to represent the interests of marginalized workers effectively. The Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Mr Lim Swee Say, in fact, had expressed his ‘discomfort’ with the notion of equal pay for equal work for migrant workers. This is a lamentable position for a leader of a union to take.
Two of the drivers, He Jun Ling and Liu Xiangying, alleged that they were beaten during interrogations by the Singapore police. Even though both men have now been sent home, the Internal Affairs Office should continue to investigate the allegations and make its findings public.
We reiterate our call for the state to
a) Redress the imbalance of power between corporations and workers;
b) Protect all workers against inequality, exploitation and discrimination in the workplace;
c) Allow independent trade unions in Singapore;
d) Review legislation that criminalizes workers who take strike action.
‘Back in China, Bus Driver Doesn’t Regret Singapore Strike’, International Herald Tribune, April 1, 2013.
‘4 jailed ex-SMRT bus drivers back in China’, Yahoo! News, April 1, 2013.