Despite the best attempts of the over-cautious mainstream media, the significance of Monday’s strike by over 102 Chinese workers (initial news reports mentioned 200) cannot be played down.
The SMRT strike is basically the second strike this year involving foreign workers (news of the first was broken by TOC on 6 February 2012), and the 2 are part of only a handful of strikes since the 1970s in Singapore.
Apart from the infrequency of which strikes occur in Singapore, the SMRT strike will have important repercussions that cut across a diverse swath of national issues such as future of industrial relations, Singapore’s foreign worker policy, and the potential re-nationalization of SMRT.
SMRT: Catastrophic year could renew calls for nationalization?
One potential repercussion of the SMRT strike is that it could re-ignite public debate over whether or not the public transport operator should be re-nationalized.
The SMRT bus driver strike is just one more domino to fall in a chain of events that is fast marking 2012 as an annus horibilis (horrible year) for SMRT.
At the beginning of the year, SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa stepped down after sustained public pressure over MRT breakdowns towards the end of 2011.
In the middle of the year, Singaporean and Malaysian bus drivers took the unusual step of blowing the whistle on their dissatisfaction with SMRT’s pay structure revision which required drivers to work 6 days instead of 5 days. TOC’s publication of the email by SMRT workers garnered 2,141 “likes”.
The whistle-blowing debacle occurred notwithstanding the best efforts of unsuccessful former People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate for Aljunied GRC Mr Ong Ye Kung. Ong was involved in the wage negotiations in his capacity as the Deputy Secretary General of the NTUC and the Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU).
Ong was also involved in the SMRT inquiry into the train breakdowns in his capacity as a board member of SMRT.
In September 2012, Ong announced that he would be leaving NTUC on 25 November 2012, a day before the SMRT debacle hit.
For SMRT, the strike could just be the proverbial straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back in terms of public perception.
SMRT ends the year with its consumers disenfranchised, and almost every sector of its workforce (Singaporean, PR and foreign workers) not just dissatisfied, but publicly expressing that dissatisfaction.
SMRT’s shareholders and the government might well come to the conclusion that perhaps nationalization is worth a second look, so things can be knocked into shape.
How relevant is NTUC?
Next, the two SMRT experiences of labour dissatisfaction raise a question of pressing concern for the Singaporean model of managing labour relations.
In the first bus driver debacle, the local SMRT drivers bypassed the NTWU and went to the press.
That strategy seems to have succeeded to some extent, as SMRT eventually agreed to settle for work conditions more favourable than what had initially been floated before the whistle-blowing occurred.
This highlights the decreasing influence of the unions: in this day and age of the internet, if the union is perceived to be pro-employer, the workers always have the option of strengthening their bargaining position by banding together and approaching the press.
NTUC has increasingly started turning to snazzy marketing to increase it’s membership base and the list of benefits of membership include, according to it’s website: “Health & Living, Lifestyle & Entertainment, Retail Therapy, Services & Development, Wine & Dine”.
Strangely enough, for a congress of unions aiming to represent the interest of workers, “Participation in a platform to fight for pay and working conditions” is not one of the benefits of membership.
The lack of union attraction is not for want of representation. At TOC’s count, 13 sitting Members of Parliament have some union affiliation: –
– Ang Hin Kee
– Halimah Yaacob
– Heng Chee How
– NMP Mary Liew
– Lim Swee Say
– Mr David Ong
– Seah Kian Peng
– Seng Han Thong
– Patrick Tay
– Josephine Teo
– Alex Yam
– Zainudin Nordin
– Yeo Guat Kwang
With Singaporean workers, NTUC needs to address legitimacy and relevance, which has yet to catch up to representation.
The second bus driver debacle (the strike) is a much more significant threat to the establishment’s preferred equilibrium of industrial relations: foreign workers who have less to lose and are much less afraid to precipitate showdowns to protest unfair treatment.
An unexpected side effect of the Government’s foreign worker policy is significant numbers of foreign workers who are not unionized and who pay little heed to Singapore’s tri-partite wage bargaining structure.
Lacking the little representation local workers have through their unions and often working under the worse paying and poorest conditions, foreign workers could potentially view strike action as a low risk method of demanding their rights from stingy employers.
Pushed to a corner, it is perhaps hard to blame them for taking drastic action.
Government dilemma over the next move to take
This leads to the third and most pressing potential fall-out from the strike: what is the Government’s next move?
The sensitivity over calling the SMRT strike a “strike” arises from the fact that the label potentially pushes the government into a corner.
If the government concedes that the strike was “a strike”, it is conceding that the strike must have been illegal as it did not follow the requirements under the Trade Unions Act for a secret ballot conducted by a registered union.
This means that the Government potentially needs to act against over 100 foreign workers who have striked illegally, or risk setting a negative precedent for other foreign workers (and potentially Singaporean workers) to follow.
Of course, acting against such a large number of foreign workers risks precipitating further labour unrest.
While TOC hesitates to prescribe a way forward, a first step in resolving the underlying conditions that led to the strike is to recognize that the action was a strike.
Recognizing the drastic steps the workers were forced to take should be the starting point to a principled re-examination of the rights of workers in Singapore vis-à-vis their employers.
It should also generate a much needed debate on the role and relevance of the NTUC in the future of Singapore’s labour relations.