By Terry Xu
Workfair Singapore released a press statement on the release of the four migrant Chinese bus drivers, Gao Yueqiang, Liu Xianging, Wang Xianjie and He Junling. The four were convicted in court on for participating in an illegal strike in November 2012, the first labour strike after 26 years since the last in 1986 . All of the four drivers has since returned back to China.
Speaking on the offence which they were charged on, Workfair Singapore felt that the custodial sentence handed down for the offence committed is disproportionate. It was argued that the four workers did not have union representation, had to endure poor living conditions and were subjected to discrimination in basic wages and incentive payments.
Workfair Singapore states that the incident of the strike and its development deserve continued scrutiny as this incident raised a range of issues related to workers’ rights and questioned if all workers should have the right to strike and what would constitute to be reasonable parameters for allowing such strike to take place. As the four workers were drivers and therefore considered as ‘essential workers’, this made the strike of the bus drivers on November last year illegal as they did not give 14 days notice before carrying out the strike.
It is lamented that the emphasis has been placed on the punishment of those involved in the strike instead of reflecting upon the current industrial relations in Singapore and protection given to low waged workers. It is said that the complaints from the bus drivers were not new, various non-governmental organizations have raised the complaints of workers such as the bus drivers, but with limited attention and resources directed to it.
On Jan 2013, there had been allegation of police abuse of the two of the drivers during interrogations by the Singapore police. In the press statement released on Feb 5, Ministry of Home Affairs said that such allegations will be taken seriously and the Internal Affairs Office (IAO) has been tasked to investigate the case. Workfair Singapore had asked that IAO to continue the investigations and to make the findings public. Till date, there has not been any updates on the findings by IAO.
Apart from the redress of imbalance of power between companies and workers and protection of rights for workers, Workfair Singapore reiterated their call for the independent trade unions in Singapore to be set up. Currently most if not all unions are affiliated with NTUC, which has uncomfortably close ties with the government. Mr Lim Swee Say who is now the Secretary General of NTUC and is also a PAP Member of Parliament.
Also there is a call to review the legislation of criminalizing workers taking action through strikes. Since 1968, the passing of the industrial relations (Amendment) act has severely limited the rights of workers to hold strikes.
As shown in this incident, this is especially true for essential workers which include drivers and nurses who have to apply for the strike to be carried out and applications would be still up for considerations.