Friday, 22 September 2023

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Strike Out! forum highlights labour and civil rights

By Benjamin Cheah

On Sunday afternoon, a group of advocates and lawyers hosted a forum on labour issues at Conclave. Titled Strike Out!, it was conducted as a follow-up to an earlier forum in 9 December 2012 and focused on the recent strike conducted by Chinese bus drivers formerly working in SMRT.

Migrant workers are not commodities

Mr Sinapan Samydorai
Mr Sinapan Samydorai

Mr Sinapan Samydorai, President of Think Centre, opened the forum by providing background information about the strike. “Migrant workers are not commodities,” he said. “Neither are they slaves.”

Mr Samydorai described the difficulties faced by the bus drivers. They had to pay $7000-7200 to a recruiting agent, and then signed a contract printed in English without understanding what the contract meant. This contract was then substituted in Singapore. They were not informed that employees of different nationalities would be paid different salaries. Their passports were confiscated and their dorms were infested with bedbugs. When some workers complained, their management refused to listen, instead repatriating them.

“Some overseas trade unions said the protection of labour rights in Singapore is worse than China,” Mr Samydorai said, referring to comments from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Mr Samydorai said the strike had achieved its objectives. The Chinese workers were given a $25 across-the-board salary increase, along with annual wage supplement and year-end annual variable bonus. Hotlines were installed in dorms, and the bedbugs removed.

Shifting the topic to migrant workers in general, Mr Samydorai said they did not have union membership and had no knowledge of labour rights. This made them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Mr Samydorai then argued that Singapore had less labour protection mechanisms than other countries. Singapore did not ratify international treaties on freedom of association and employment and occupational discrimination. Singapore also denounced the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention in 1979.

“The erosion of labour rights began in 1959 after the PAP government was formed,” he said. To create an investor-friendly environment, he said the government restricted or removed laws that favoured workers. The 1968 Employment Act allowed employers to hire and fire without giving reasons; and reduced holidays, rest days and leave while increasing holiday pay. The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act limited the ability of workers to conduct industrial action in essential services, and banned political and solidarity strikes. These laws effectively favoured employers, managers and investors at the workers’ expense.

Mr Samydorai’s last point was that the current wage system was set up to “break worker solidarity”. Migrant workers are paid less than Singaporeans, and wages for locals are maintained at low level compared to productivity levels. Employers also do not contribute CPF monies to foreign workers. In doing so, he argues, this system gets workers to “blame each other” instead of taking a collective look at the wage system.

Under the Eye of Big Brother

Mr Jolovan Wham
Mr Jolovan Wham

Jolovan Wham continued the forum by discussing his personal experiences while working with the bus drivers during and after the strike.

“The media made the workers look like criminals,” he said, referring to the four bus drivers at the heart of the strike. “They’re called ‘alleged ringleaders’ and ‘grousers’.”

Mr Wham discussed the tactics he and his colleagues used to gain support. They organised a petition and approached international non-government organizations like Amnesty International and Frontline Defenders, which made statements of support. They also released filmmaker Lynn Lee’s video that showed the bus drivers making allegations of torture as part of their advocacy movement.

“Proper (feedback) channels were not effective,” Mr Wham said, arguing that they did not address the workers’ concerns.

This activity caught the attention of the government. “I felt like I was reliving the 1979 Marxist conspiracy,” he said.

When the drivers were arrested, he and Ms Shelley Thio went to bail them. They found themselves followed by unidentified people and cars. Mr Wham said the surveillance was “quite brazen”, and he took photos of the cars and posted them on his Workfair blog.

“I don’t know who they were, but I guess they were from the Internal Security Department,” he said.

It was only the beginning. He said he suspected their phones were being tapped. He saw “a big black van with the engine running” outside Select Books, where the activists working with the drivers had their first meeting. Later, Mr Wham decided to go to Hong Kong to hold a press conference. Two days after buying the plane picket, Chinese language newspaper Lianhe Wanbao claimed he was going to Hong Kong to attend a protest instead, citing an Internet post.

“Only a small group of us discussed it at home,” Mr Wham said. “I think this was an attempt to tell us that we were being followed, that we shouldn’t go too far.”

Mr Wham and his friends took countermeasures. They kept groups as small as possible and kept their phones switched off in meetings. But they still noticed people following them.

“This is the new normal,” Mr Wham said. “I see a lot of things being done in which our civil liberties are being violated.”

A portrait of the man

Ms Shelley Thio
Ms Shelley Thio

Ms Shelley Thio, Executive Committee member of Transient Workers Count Too, was up next, speaking of her interactions with one of the drivers, Mr He Junliang.

“He was an idealist,” she said. “He felt emotional about discrimination against PRC workers. He talked about discrimination compared to the Malaysian workers. I found it fascinating: the PRC workers would be satisfied if they were paid Malaysian standards.”

She said Mr He wanted to reach out to people, so he wrote articles on Baidu describing the workers’ plight. “Everybody was talking about it, only he did something.”

Of the 29 workers who were repatriated, she said most of them had only worked for less than a year. They returned home poorer than before, leading to strained relationships with their families. Most of them still have not found jobs in their homework.

“He felt responsible for what happened,” she said. “He said, ‘I never thought this would happen. I never thought this would affect so many lives.”

The legal framework

Mr Remy Choo
Mr Remy Choo

Mr Choo Zheng Xi, co-founder of The Online Citizen and lawyer to the four workers who led the strike, was up next.

“This case terrified a lot of us,” he said. “The police seemed particularly interested in the SMSes between Lynn and me. Now I’ve been singled out as the lawyer who unhelpfully did not assist with investigations. I feel like there’s a target on my back.”

He was referring to a press release by the Ministry of Home Affairs. In response, he said, “We had a cordial meeting in the internal Affairs office. Someone in MHA did not agree.”

Elaborating on his experiences later, Mr Choo said, “It’s alarming for me to see how threatened the establishment felt. I didn’t quite expect that. What’s so wrong about a strike? We need to reconsider whether strikes are taboo.”

Discussing the purpose of unions, he said, “The point of a union is to collectively bargain on your part.”

However, the unions did not stand up for the Chinese workers. The collective bargain that had been reached between NTWU/NTUC and SMRT explicitly exempted temporary temporary and contract employees. The Chinese bus drivers were hired on renewable two-year contracts, effectively excluding them from labour rights protection.

Mr Choo then brought up Singapore’s last ‘illegal’ strike in 1980, in which 15 pilots went on strike after negotiations broke down between the union and their employers. They were granted an absolute discharge, with the judge saying, “They have been punished enough.”

“If they had union protection, the bus drivers would likely have gotten a fine,” Mr Choo argued. Talking about legal requirements to give 14 days’ notice before going on strike, he added, “What is criminalized is not giving appropriate notice. It’s an idiotic thing to expect a foreign worker to do. The boss will tell him, ‘you’re fired’.”

What could have been: the defence

Mr Mark Goh
Mr Mark Goh

In the final presentation, lawyer Mark Goh discussed how his firm would have handled the legal defence had Mr He and his compatriots chosen to go to court instead.

The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, he said, was a ‘strict liability offence’. Its objective was to maintain public order, so the intention behind not giving 14 days notice would come into play.

“The objective of a strike is important,” he said. “It is a last resort instrument…to force a collective agreement. It is illegal if it is for political purposes, solidarity or other purpose.”

Mr Goh said he would have launched a technical defence based on this interpretation, which he argued was in line with international norms as well as Parliamentary interpretation. He highlighted speeches made by Messrs Lee Kwan Yew and David Marshall in Parliament that supported this argument, saying that the purpose of the bill and the 14 days’ notice was to prevent infiltrators and hotheads from inciting strikes for political or other purposes.

“The prosecution has to show that 14 days’ notice was not given and that the strike was for some other political purpose,” he said.

Mr Goh estimated that this argument would have a 50-50 chance of winning an acquittal.

Closing remarks

In the Question and Answer session that followed, the speakers moved on to other related topics, such as civil rights, discrimination and legislation.

Talking about civil rights in Singapore, Mr Samydorai said, “The act of speaking out in public is seen as a wrong, not a right. Why are Singaporeans afraid to ask for their rights?”


“Discrimination by nationality in still in practice,” Mr Wham said, pointing out that Mr Lim Swee Say, Secretary-General of NTUC, explicitly supported this practice. “He said salaries for the PRC bus drivers were a lot of money in China. If we pay your drivers by household expenditure, then shouldn’t Singaporeans be paid a lot more too? There is no logic to this argument.”

An audience member asked about pressing for anti-discrimination legislation. Ms Thio said, “We should advocate for anti-discrimination legislation.” She further argued there should be representatives of migrant workers as well. “Civil society has to work together and push forward to work with the state to push for an anti-discrimination bill.”

“We have to go further than asking for changes in the law,” Mr Goh said. He recounted his experiences in India, where in spite of legal protections, workers were still exploited by their companies. “The corporations have to change. Corporations will always exploit workers if they can. It’s just business. An alliance of consumers needs to ask how products or services are delivered instead of just buying cheap.” By just going for the cheapest product, the consumer is indirectly supporting discrimination.

Mr Leong Sze Hian asked, “The cost of a Chinese worker is 25% cheaper than a Singaporean. Why should an employer hire locals?”

To this, Mr Wham responded, “This is not about local versus migrant workers. If migrant workers won’t be exploited, locals will not be displaced. The moment you underpay migrant workers, you undercut local workers. If workers don’t feel respected, why would they work hard for the company?”

Expanding on that, Mr Goh said, “Foreign workers are like cheap drugs. Companies do not want to invest in productivity if they can hire foreign workers. Some of the blame is on SMEs for not wanting to invest in advanced equipment.”

In his closing remarks, Mr Samydorai added, “Why are we looking differently at each other? I think the basis of human beings is us respecting each other as equals. What is preventing us from treating each other as equals?”

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