Friday, 29 September 2023

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SMRT strike: Who should be responsible?

By: Ng Yi Shu
smrt bus driver

(photo: Workfair)

 The recent SMRT strikes have led to a series of responses, culminating in two forums – one by Think Centre on the 9th of December 2012, and another by Online|Offline on the 15th of December. Much have been spoken online and offline about the strike and the relevant issues surrounding it – migrant worker labour rights, principles of equal pay and equal work, immigration policy… Yet, one question has been found wanting – the question of who should be responsible for the strike. Granted, numerous responses have been garnered – Sinapan Samydorai in the Think Centre forum said that immigration policy was to blame – and by extension, the ruling party – echoing many sentiments on the Internet. But beyond the finger-pointing, much remains to be desired.

So who really was responsible?
Foreign labour agencies
A documentary from Chengdu, China shows the various misleading advertisements of life as a bus driver in Singapore – salaries of $2000 and above (RMB¥10000 equivalent) and comfortable accommodation. This incredulous myth has certainly been shattered in China and Hong Kong, where Hong Kong’s trade unions demonstrated in solidarity of the PRC drivers in the aftermath of the strike.
It might be argued that the agents are merely operating a business – but ethical constrains have to be put in to ensure the reliability and record of the companies the agents send the migrant workers to, and adequate education and information should be provided to the migrant workers as well so they know what they have signed up for.
It is also certain that government oversight in China did not work in safeguarding their foreign workers. It remains paramount that governments begin to pay attention at the gross misconduct of labour rights in countries where their citizens find work – for doing so will ensure that the rights of their own citizens are preserved.
SMRT – the employer
Opinion has moved against the employer SMRT for not having a principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’. However, it can be certain that the principle of equal pay for equal work isn’t an employer-wide practice; if that was the case, outrage against SMRT would even be greater than what transcended in the aftermath and ‘cheap foreign labour’ would be a myth.
A series of previous investigative reporting by TOC has also revealed the incompetencies of SMRT in handling the workers’ grievances; the workers looked towards NTUC for help precisely because SMRT could not resolve the issues they had with regards to their work conditions.
Yet, in its aftermath, SMRT has refused to increase the drivers’ pay further, the ministry claimed that ‘proper grievance channels’ had not been utilized… they have partaken in a game of finger-pointing that has harmed no one but the drivers on strike themselves.
Ministry of Manpower
The Ministry of Manpower had instantly condemned the industrial action taken by the PRC drivers on the second day of the strike. Denouncing the action as ‘crossing the line’, Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin proclaimed that “The Government views these disruptions very seriously. We have zero tolerance for such unlawful action because disrupted essential services not only affect the workers in the industry, but also affect the daily life of all in the community.
Yet, the Ministry had certainly not done much to listen to the grievances of the drivers concerned – netizens mentioned ironically that in a facebook note made on 24th November 2012 the minister had said “all it takes for us to connect better is just to reach out.”
The Ministry certainly has much to improve on labour relations. It has however kept away from enforcing an improvement of labour relations between SMRT and its employees, preferring only to say that “SMRT must take steps to ensure that a severe breakdown in labour relations”. This non-committal approach may be welcomed by employers as it benefits the current status quo, but it certainly will not be enough.
Everyone holds some share of responsibility – even us
In the aftermath of the strike action many had begun to blame the PRC drivers for the strike, echoing long-running xenophobic sentiment. Pro-PAP netizens begin to blame the opposition’s Singaporean First principle, neglecting to recognise that that same principle was echoed by PM Lee in his National Day Rally speech – accusing the opposition as ‘flip-flopping’ on their stands. Anti-establishment netizens came all out in support of Vincent Wijeysingha’s viral facebook note about his stand on the PRC strike. Both have perhaps not realised what the opposition has been truly in support of – the ideals of dignity and equality for all.
The recent development of a National Conversation has touched on the idea of values for the country. It is certainly ironic that we may be talking about values over buffet lunches but not acting upon these values. To quote Andrew Loh: “Our National Conversation asks what we want Singapore to be like in 2030. It is ridiculous to be talking about 2030 when we can’t even right the wrongs of the present.”
One might say that such habits may be hard to cultivate – but speaking about ‘values education’ on one hand and acting with disregard for values on the other smells of hypocrisy – as the Michael Palmer incident demonstrates. Taking a sense of ownership of the country also means to take responsibility for what happens to it – even if it may not be within our control.
However, it may also be useless to proclaim that we all do something in the present – as there is a conflict of identity we face today. This crisis is perhaps one of identity, or ‘who we want to be’, as a participant so aptly proclaimed in the Think Centre forum. Perhaps this strike will go down in the history books as part of an era of soul-searching and identity searching.
Perhaps one has to recognize that the urgency to act now is as pertinent as the urgency for identity.

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