by Vincent Wijeysingha
The government has acted in our name as is its duty. It purged an industrial action and returned the nation to business as usual. The bus drivers from SMRT recklessly involved themselves in an illegal strike after refusing to bring their grievances to management or their trade union or seek the assistance of the Manpower Ministry. Twenty-nine have been deported, one hundred and fifty more issued a police warning and the five ringleaders will be tried. Industrial harmony has been restored, the tripartite relationship upheld, and public disorder averted.
As fortunate citizens of this prosperous and stable nation, we can heave a sigh of relief. Those refractory foreigners got what they deserved. How dare they come to our land - which our government built from a fishing village - and demand such indulgences as suitable accommodation and an equal wage. Nobody promised them any of that: if they aren’t happy here they can fuck off back home.
There are too many damn foreigners here as it is. The come here to steal our jobs, marry our women, clog the trains, explode housing prices, beat up taxi drivers, and drive Ferraris too fast. They dance outside Wisma Atria and jam the staircases at Lucky Plaza. Oh, and they smell. And talk too loudly. In strange accents.
In short, they are audacious and unpleasant. Oh, and they smell. Did I mention that? They do. And they talk too loudly.
Twenty-nine PRC workers deported means trains that are twenty-nine odoriferous bodies less crowded.
Except that they mostly built the train stations in the last twenty years. And the condos. And the roads. And dug the drains. And sweep the streets and collect the garbage. And keep one million households clean, children fed, grandparents minded, dogs walked, and laundry washed.
All at a cost so miniscule that our taxes can be kept low. And investment can pour in. And we can go to work in comfort, walk clean streets, and come home to clean houses and clean children.
What price do we pay for these smelly philanthropists?
What price do they pay?
Well, we found out this week. If we are to take a position on what could yet be the most divisive moment of the decade, we should know what we are talking about.
The 25 November Baidu website post of one of the ringleaders soon to be tried for instigating the strike bespeaks a frustrated, despairing man. A man feeling the weight of the unfairness of treatment by a large government-controlled transit company.
“This is not just a labour dispute, it was an illegal strike,” intoned the responsible minister solemnly at his press conference on Saturday. But what if the law is unfair? What if the law makes it so difficult as to be impossible for a worker to claim fair treatment? What if the law masks an even greater injustice? What then?
I exonerate the minister since he is acting within the constraints imposed upon him. Constraints built into the system over decades. Constraints precisely designed to neutralise anyone who dares to ask for respect and dignity. We are, after all, economic digits, and the minister played out the role that history and the PAP high command has laid out for him. He is, in many senses, an economic digit too.
But should we stand by as our fellow workers, whether born upon this soil or not, are given a wage increase of thirteen cents an hour? Are paid less for doing the same work? Are told to go and join another company if they are unhappy with their pay and conditions? Are made to sleep in overcrowded, bed bug-infested dormitories?
Let us examine the facts of the case as they have unfolded, not over this last week since the bus drivers struck, but over almost six months since their contracts were rewritten. For then we will learn that this was not a wildcat strike by a few unreasonable, demanding, ungrateful ringleaders but the last wretched act in a series of grievances which management and the trade union congress resolutely refused to address but which, if they had, might have averted the strike and prevented so many workers (and their families) from having to pay the ultimate price of losing their jobs.
Some several weeks before July, the workers were informed that their contracts were to be varied effective July. Salaries were to be revised upwards. However, the working week was also to be lengthened from five to six days. Recalculating their raised wages against their longer working hours meant an actual drop in wages.
Additionally, their six day work week did not mean working Days 1 to 6 and then resting on the seventh. It meant being allocated a rest day at any time during each seven day period: Thus they could be off on Monday, work twelve days straight and then be off next on the Sunday of the second week.
This did not include the already existing practice of not paying the drivers for the time it takes to prepare their vehicles prior to starting their first run of the day and servicing their vehicles after the end of each shift. Workers estimated that SMRT sucked at least one hour of unpaid work per shift from each driver. That’s six hours per week, or $150 per month. Which is 750 Renmimbi: a week’s wages in China.
Now, bear in mind that these changes were not negotiated with the workers. They were simply announced. In fact, at some depots, management merely posted a note on the canteen notice board.
The workers, both foreign and local, became unhappy, as necessarily they would. They spoke to their management. Some wrote a petition; some approached The Online Citizen; others came to the SDP for help.
Nothing could be achieved in the face of corporate and government obduracy. As The Online Citizen wrote on 1 October, “All negotiations with SMRT’s HR have failed as well. In a closed door meeting with the SMRT drivers, the Senior Operations Manager of SMRT told the drivers, “You can resign and go to SBS”.”
The matter was delegated to Ong Ye Kung, the failed PAP parliamentary candidate for Aljuneid in 2011. He was in somewhat of a difficult position being, in addition to Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC, also, in the tripartite format that has served the administration so well these last thirty years, a director of the Board of SMRT. Mr Ong resigned in September without disclosing his reasons: perhaps the conundrum was beyond his intellectual limits.
The matter of the SMRT drivers was pushed onto the back burner. The government ignored the reports in the online press. Frustrated drivers even approached a lawyer for legal advice. The workers eventually struck because even the trifling $25 pay increase wasn’t yet in their latest wage packet.
The reason I am acquainted with this sequence of events, which SMRT and the Manpower Ministry has pretended didn’t come to pass and on which the mainstream press has dutifully kept silent, is because the SDP’s Community Service Unit was involved with some of the workers from before their new contracts came into force and had been liaising through a third party with the petition writers.
I am moved to write this note because in those frustrated Chinese bus drivers, I see my own fate. The powers that govern the allocation of resources, that is, governments and corporations, have never conceded better pay and conditions for workers without a fight, sometimes violent and bloody confrontations merely to exact such simple concessions as a living wage and safe working conditions. I have never believed that I can get on in life without a collective attitude to society. Each man and woman contributing their skills and time to make a nation hum. Capital and labour working together, to use the phraseology of a past age. So, in the fate of some workers who, in the intransigence of great power, had nowhere else to turn except to withdraw their labour, their only power against power, as it were, I see my own fate as a worker.
No doubt, there are some who will accuse me of politicking, of turning this into an opportunity to ‘bash’ the government. It is a convenient accusation and one which, ultimately, benefits no one but those who would prefer that we remain economic digits, rather than self-respecting citizens of a free society.
To use that time-honoured word so hallowed by the PAP, I will be accused by some of trying to “politicise” the issue. The first prime minister’s formulation, which writer Catherine Lim found to her cost, that to involve oneself in politics one must join a political party, is both self-serving and dishonest. All citizens, indeed all people, through the very fact of their existence, are responsible for the political structures, economic conditions and social framework of their community. The word politics stems from the Greek for ‘city’. Living in a city, a community, makes us all responsible for its functioning. In Athens, the cradle of democracy, it was not just a responsibility but a duty.
And so, as I have watched events unfold over the last week and heard utterance upon utterance from official sources whose proximity to the truth has been stretched beyond sight, I ask you to consider the key underlying issues inherent in this sorry affair.
I start first with the anti-foreigner sentiments which I think are important because they have thinly-veiled the debate this last week. The levels of xenophobia in our country have been rising exponentially over these last twenty years. I know what xenophobia is. I spent long years in the UK, itself facing a xenophobic assault by those threatened by the presence of foreigners. I spent much time in Australia and in Germany where I saw the same processes unfolding. And at home in Singapore the same trends are emerging.
But have we stopped to consider from where our antipathy comes? Have we wondered why the Singaporean Chinese approach their mainland cousins in so hostile a manner? Why Singaporean Indians have become increasingly antipathetic to those from the subcontinent? Could we not, in our opposition and antagonism to the immigration and foreign labour policies, which we have never had a chance to debate adequately, be railing against the weakest elements in the enterprise, the migrants themselves? Could we not, in our powerlessness against government policy, be attacking he who is easiest to attack?
Every day in the online media, in social discourse, in face-to-face interaction we rail against foreigners. But organise a forum to discuss ways of communicating our displeasure to the government and exploring policy alternatives, and only a hundred people turn up. My view is that we feel powerless and can scarce believe that the government would listen to us. And why should it? Have we ever given them cause to recognise our views as significant and important? We cave in at every opportunity. We acquiesce in each new policy. We watch in silence as cabinet ministers tell us from on high that, despite our opposition to immigration policy, it will remain in place and that we will have to like it or lump it.
In my view, the root of our xenophobia is not our hatred of foreigners. In a sense, all of us, with the exception of our Malay brothers and sisters, are foreigners on this island. Our ancestors all came here, much like the SMRT drivers, in search of a better life. We have grown up exposed to and sharing in cultures totally different to ours. How can we, so outward-looking and globalised, hate foreigners?
Our Indians and Malays swear in Chinese languages! Our Chinese eat fish head curry at Race Course Road with their fingers, halal mooncakes and char kuay teow are freely available, and the Eurasian and Peranakan communities, in my view the best and most colourful elements of our community, are cultural deposits not found anywhere else in the world. In short, in our very beings we are internationalist, globalised and open to diverse cultural forms.
So, we must look elsewhere for the explanations. My view, which I ask you to consider, is that what we are really opposed to is the government’s immigration policy, not the beneficiaries of that policy. We are no more averse to peoples of other races flocking to our island now that our parents and grandparents were three and four generations ago. And if we cannot find some way to communicate our views to the government in such a way that it will listen, then our society is on a collision course with the political equivalent of the Andromeda Galaxy. Why? Because a society resting precariously upon such unhappiness, such alienation, cannot remain peaceful, stable and productive.
Many have expressed outright xenophobic views about the Chinese bus drivers. “Go home, Ah Tiong,” seems to be a popular sentiment. I ask you, in this note, to reflect with me on the wider reasons underlying their action and, so, to clarify what this is all about. Because if you do not, if we do not, we will have missed another opportunity to grow up and take our place in a democratic, free society, not languishing in the infancy of our nation, still content that Big Brother will do our thinking and our value setting for us.
In the light of the inevitable accusations that I suspect may come my way, allow me to share my thoughts on this lamentable demonstration of state power which has attacked the system at its strongest potential point, that is, its labour force, and at its most vulnerable justification, the stability of our economy and its amenability to foreign investment. If I have at the very least got you to ask some questions we have yet left unasked, then I think I can withstand the accusation.
There are three issues to look at.
One is the ‘At All Costs’ argument. It is a rhetoric founded upon the crisis mentality that the government posited in the early years of its existence: that Singapore, bereft of even limited natural resources, lately shorn of its hinterland, and now finding itself in a hostile ‘Malay sea’, could little afford such fripperies as human dignity and joy. Oh no, oh no, it was said, if we let up on our eternal vigilance, if we cast doubts on the probity of our administration, if we slack for even a second, we would be mired in perdition, that favourite word of the apocalyptic Lee Kuan Yew.
And unfortunately, we bought the rhetoric, ceding to our leaders more power than was appropriate to their offices and slumping into a state of intellectual inertia from which only our access to alternative media, books and journals is lately releasing us. So, our leaders consistently voted themselves the highest ministerial salaries in the world to afford mansion homes in Second Avenue and Binjai Park; second homes at Nassim Jade; foreign education for their children; overseas luxury flats in Cambridgeshire or the London Docklands. Meanwhile, the wages of our people flatlined at the middle and decayed at the lower levels and housing and healthcare prices skyrocketed while cabinet ministers consistently tell us to hang on just a little longer for that Golden Age that is just within sight. To our shame, we stomached the oratory, even as our leaders own lives showed a very different outcome. We became hostages to the very discourse of success.
The second issue to consider is the proposition, invented and propagated by the PAP, that Singapore has a fine administrative structure designed purposefully for the wellbeing of the people. We heard it this week when Tan Chuan Jin, acting Manpower Minister, assured us that legitimate processes exist for the settlement of labour concerns and disputes, and that if only the Chinese bus drivers had availed of them, they would have avoided the iron fist of the law that slammed upon their backs early Monday morning.
This is a patent fiction. And the minister knows it, which makes his dishonest pronouncements, all the more shameful. He and his immediate predecessors have, for the last eight years been advised and informed of the structures of the Ministry of Manpower that militate against fair treatment of workers, particularly foreign workers, particularly low-waged foreign workers, particularly low-waged, less-educated foreign workers.
In these last eight years, the activist groups, HOME and TWC2, have bombarded the Manpower Ministry with report upon report and, literally, countless complaints about labour processes that not only disadvantage foreign, low-waged workers but in some instances result in their being maimed or killed.
Tan Chuan Jin and his colleagues are comprehensively aware of this. His behaviour over this last week has shown him to be a man either systematically incapable of telling the truth or of grasping the realities of his department. I posit neither proposal: I merely offer them for public interrogation. (And perhaps a response from the minister himself.)
"There are appropriate grievance handling processes in place, and workers are advised to speak to their HR and management to discuss and resolve any employment-related issues amicably, rather than take matters into their own hands," the ministry pronounced.
In a scathing article on his blog, Yawning Bread, on 1 December, the incisive and, as usual, erudite Alex Au made just this point. He said, “The government pretends there is a process for labour justice, but there isn’t and its absence sows the seed for future instability.” My own stint at TWC2 as its Executive Director and my close dealings with HOME’s Jolovan Wham and other labour activists evidences this to be so.
And as I have narrated the six-month long duration of this deplorable saga, the workers did try every means at their disposal to resolve their concerns. They were told to go and work for SBS. They did not have adequate processes as the minister claims.
Another poorly-advised government placeman, Cedric Foo, Chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, piously said that workers should follow due process. "I think work stoppages are not the way to go, especially in the case of essential services, it shouldn't be the course of action since there are unintended consequences - commuters face disruptions and they are not even involved in the dispute," he said.
Except that the workers did follow “due process”. But they all ended in a blind alley. For six months they tried to talk to anyone who would listen and the government ignored them. For Mr Foo to now pretend that they did not use the means available to them – and the concomitant, albeit silent accusation, that they were precipitate and reckless – is again, I ask you to speculate, either foolish, unintelligent, or just plain uninformed. Mr Foo will need to search his conscience and perhaps if his strength finally finds him, he may wish to respond.
“Workers should go through their unions if they have union representation, or go to the MOM or the Industrial Arbitration Court,” he added. In Sunday’s papers we read that the NTUC thoroughly supported the government’s position on the strikes. We also know, because that is not something that could be hidden, that the relevant Deputy Secretary-General of the NTUC deputised to deal with the workers’ grievances, faced a significant conflict of interest. Mr Foo may wish to explain how the workers might have been expected to obtain redress from such a shamelessly armlocked set-up. Again, I invite him to respond.
"The MOM takes the workers' actions very seriously," said yet another spokesperson. From my adumbration above of the events that unfolded, not over five days, I remind you, but over almost six months, MOM only took their actions seriously when they had the potential to challenge the government in a very public way. When the workers were content to carry their concerns through Mr Foo’s ‘due process’, the government, the corporation and the trade union simply ignored them. For Mr Foo and General Tan to now pretend that they did not follow ‘due process’ is, at the very least, disingenuous.
The new SMRT CEO, Desmond Kuek, replacing Saw Paik Hwa, who left wealthy but in disgrace some months ago, returned from holiday and quickly got his script right. He joined his political masters in repeating ad nauseam that SMRT took a serious view of strikes and the drivers should have used the proper channels to raise their concerns and feedback. “There are open channels of communications with all our Service Leaders (SLs), such as regular townhall sessions and staff dialogues," he is quoted as saying.
I need not repeat to him that they did try all the channels open to them. None worked, as he well knows. The Online Citizen reported way back in September:
On 8th August 2012, a group of SMRT drivers petitioned the Union Chief Lim Swee Say demanding reinstatement of their previous five day workweek and salary package. Their negotiations have reached a stalemate.
I spoke to three drivers from SMRT on the 25th of September and they tell the same story that they have taken a forced pay cut since May 2012. According to the drivers, the Secretary General and Executive Committee of NTUC agreed with SMRT Management to accept the unfavourable proposal. Under the new scheme, the drivers said that they have been taking home about $400 – $500 less each month. It is estimated that each driver will lose in excess of $3500 in earnings from May to December 2012.
All their attempts to negotiate a fair wage have come to a naught. The drivers have also petitioned the Prime Minister, who then referred the drivers to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The MOM in turn referred them to the Land Transport Authority (LTA), only for LTA to bounce this matter back to MOM. After six weeks, they are back to where they started – MOM has referred this back to NTUC.
Now, the third issue we must address if we are going to make any sense of the matter is the methodology of the government when confronted with challenge or dispute.
As I have established above, the processes that exist at the administrative level to respond to labour concerns are a chimera at best, a delusion or a lie at worst. So we can safely mark down General Tan, Mr Foo and their colleagues’ interpretation of things. They may never have taken a walk through their grievance processes but I assure them that I have. And Jolovan Wham has. And Kenneth Soh of TWC2 has. And Alex Au has. And they will all, to a man, tell you that they only crawl into seeming life when pushed and prodded against their will. Read the numerous reports and press statements and personal stories on their websites and you will know this too.
As Alex Au, who has become very familiar with labour processes through his involvement at TWC2 said in the same blog post I referred to above, “The government therefore is misleading the public by suggesting that it had processes to help. It does not. Our mainstream media do our public no service by not putting their brains to use before printing slavishly what the government says.” I have no option but to join Mr Au in his challenge to the authorities and I issue a new one: Justify the statements you have made in this last week or remain totally vulnerable to the accusation that you have been economical with the truth.
Minister Tan Chuan Jin, pretended to a great deal of ignorance when he said at his press conference on Saturday,
SMRT must take steps to ensure that such severe breakdowns in labour relations should not happen again. We all know that there are statutory requirements that companies need to fulfil and these are expected of all companies but there are also many non-statutory practices which frankly any good company should fulfil as well and this includes how you manage your staff, employees, how you engage them and how you look after them, looking after their welfare and this includes both local and foreign employees and frankly it is common sense, companies are expected to do that.
The issue is really why did this happen? Why was it allowed to fester? We do understand that the channels of communication are there. So the question is, did it filter upwards? Did it not filter upwards? And why not? And those are things we have to examine."
I am afraid I have to tell him his protestations are mealy-mouthed. The nation, through the good offices of The Online Citizen, has known about this matter since September. Mr Tan cannot claim ignorance now: he comes across as either incompetent or not telling the whole truth. I invite him to clarify.
Let us turn then to how the government does in fact deal with dispute? It locks people up as it did this week. It deports them or refuses to allow them back in, as Dr Ang Swee Chai found, or revokes their citizenship if that is possible, and Tan Wah Piow found this to his cost. It tortures people. It bankrupts people or silences them through the threat of defamation suits. It writes threatening letters as Ng Eng Hen did last week. It fabricates evidence – as Dr Vasoo did twenty years ago – to deprive people of their living. Lest I be accused of fabricating this, I draw evidence from the fact that this accusation has been published abroad in my colleague, Chee Soon Juan’s book, Democratically Speaking, available these last three months and against which Dr Vasoo has not raised a whimper.
This is its modus operandi, refined over fifty years. If General Tan knows this not, he knows very little. As his party founder, Lee Kuan Yew, once said so shamefully, “repression is like making love: it’s always easier the second time round.” Indeed he should know.
Now couple that climate of fear and retribution with the PAP’s remaking of itself as an institution synonymous and indistinguishable from the nation itself. Couple that with a media entirely controlled by the government as to function simply and solely as its mouthpiece. Couple that with a 100% success rate at its defamation suits. Couple that with a trade union movement so closely tucked up in bed with both the government and the corporate world as to be largely interchangeable one from the other; Mr Ong Ye Kung being the best example. Couple that with a Societies Act that has phenomenal power to regulate the extent and conduct of civil society. And couple that with the universities who are so anxious to walk the line laid for them by the government that they have not used their talents on even a single occasion to point out the flaws in the system and their damage to innocent, decent citizens.
And crown the whole sorry theatre of absurdities with Whitley Road Detention Centre and the marks upon their psyche that Vincent Cheng and Teo Soh Lung and Chia Thye Poh and more than a thousand victims of the PAP still carry and you arrive at what, this week, Alex Au called a petitionary state and Chan Heng Chee once termed a “petitionary political culture”.
It is not a culture of equals. It is a culture of supplicant and benefactor. The polity that the PAP has habituated us to is one where our just deserts can only come from a Cabinet in a good mood or facing a General Election.
Again, if General Tan knows this not, he knows very little.
If at this point in this limited essay, I have at least captured your attention, if not agreement, allow me to go further and examine the role of trade unions.
The middle 1800s were a time like no other in the history of the modern world. The widespread availability of new materials like steel; the rapid invention of machines; the discovery of electricity; the harnessing of steam and coal; and the expansion of raw material availability and markets in the colonial enterprise gave rise to what historians have come to call the Industrial Revolution.
The new factories divided work processes into minute tasks such that the craftsmen of yesteryear disappeared and a new phenomenon arose, the factory worker, a deskilled, unlettered operative contributing only a small part of the whole production process. There were no more guilds of craftsmen but a huge mass of workers, divided one from the other by favours and bribes. Professionalisation and machinery gave rise to economies of scale in the primary goods market: the farms and ranches. The capital accumulated from these new industrial and farming ventures created great wealth. A new world of exploitation and estrangement, what Marx termed anomie, was born.
Gradually, as the exploitation of workers increased, so did the waking up of these workers, aided by social workers and political activists. Trade unions began to be formed to campaign and later negotiate better wages and healthier and safer working conditions.
Pope Leo XIII became alarmed at what he saw as the increasing exploitation of the common people. With the assistance of Cardinal Manning, the English bishop who placed himself so closely on the side of the workers, the Pope penned a letter to the world entitled Rerum Novarum, where he said,
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
The trade union movement, drawing from the support of all right-thinking people gradually came to occupy a central place between capital and labour, ensuring that labour was disciplined and capital was inclusive and not given to cutting corners at the expense of the workers’ wellbeing.
The situation in Singapore in the post-Second World War period mirrored the situation earlier in the west. Trade unions rose up to safeguard workers against the caprice of colonial entrepreneurs and their Asian brothers-in-arms. Lee Kuan Yew, a young ambitious and, as history has shown, thoroughly unscrupulous lawyer, rode to prominence on the back of the beleaguered unions.
In office, as Michael Fernandez and Loh Kah Seng showed in a recent paper, Lee entirely destroyed the trade union movement and then remade it in the form in which we see today, a form propagated by puny plenipotentiaries like Lim Swee Say.
What, fundamentally, does a trade union do? It does not exist to manage supermarkets and chalets, good though these amenities are in themselves. At its basic and best, trade unions protect workers precisely like the ones at the centre of this episode. Speaking on behalf of workers with one voice, they hold management to account, they prevent arbitrary use of management and state power to exploit and to cheat, they guard against exploitation.
The Singapore unions and their Congress reneged on their historical duty to these workers. Feeble, quisling functionaries, they betrayed their workers and sided with a corporation that sought to pay its workers less for working more and then joined in pounding them into the ground when they took matters into their own hands to do what Lim Swee Say and his lamentable deputies could not do.
There is another element which is equally alarming as the behaviour of Tan, Lim et al who, as I said, can be exonerated for they are only acting out their parts in return for handsome salaries, chauffeurs and status. They are frail administrators to whom the inducement of a generous monetary exchange is sufficient to buy their compliance.
It is the online behaviour of my fellow Singaporeans which saddens me equally. People have speculated whether the drivers’ claims were true or not or whether they were excessive and unreasonable. Should we or should we not allow strikes and particularly in the essential services which hold up and inconvenience our lives. We should get rid of these foreigners and employ more locals so that they can’t hold ‘us’ hostage. Surprisingly, some are even angry that their action resulted in rapid remedial action by the authorities. And of course, taking shelter in the safest of all propositions, some have cried that the law is the law and no one should break it.
Nowhere, except among our more gifted commentators such as Andrew Loh and Alex Au have I heard the harder questions asked and challenged laid. Nowhere did I hear anyone ask how their families were coping with a salary increase of thirteen cents an hour. Nowhere did I hear the cry raised that we should at least wait to hear the whole story before moving so decisively to charge these men and then imprison them awaiting trial even though they are no danger to society and will not, cannot, abscond if bailed.
This is unbecoming of us. It is not worthy of us. Their wellbeing is our wellbeing; we cannot presume to enjoy life when the very enjoyments we take for granted have been afforded to us by the workers whom we are content to see paid so little and bullied so much when they, like Oliver Twist, ask for more. We owe them a bit more than that.
Workers rights are indivisible. We cannot ask for concessions on our own behalf but ignore or deny them to others because they happen to come from a different country. To use another hackneyed phrase, we are in this together. I can’t drive my own bus to work powered by petrol I processed myself on a road I laid myself. I can’t build my own office building or office furniture. I don’t cook my own food in the canteen or wash up the tableware.
If, as fellow workers, joint participants in this enterprise we call society, we cannot see this elementary truth, we have a lot of learning yet to do. But do it we must, because make no mistake about it, our government will have on hesitation in dealing with us in the same way it has dealt with the Chinese bus drivers. None whatsoever. Do not rest content that the PAP carries a torch for the Singaporean worker; it does not.
We cannot let these Chinese workers take the rap for asking only for fair employment. And we cannot agree to their punishment when all the processes that exist in our name denied them the basic right to have their grievances heard. Throughout history, concessions have only been won against corporations and governments when they have been demanded. If you think that the right to an eight-hour day, a forty-hour week, a one hour lunch break, and basic safety and health standards were given to you on a platter proffered by Lim Swee Say and his friends, you are very severely mistaken. These Chinese workers, by doing what we have been cowed from doing ourselves so long, have in fact widened the democratic space for us. And in time to come, when we are less afraid to think for ourselves, we will come to thank them.
The government’s final response on the matter, notwithstanding the trial of the five that is to take place imminently, inadvertently admitted that the workers’ grievances were all entirely well-founded. It acknowledged that communication channels are poor, grievance procedures are improper, management and HR policies are wanting, and the accommodation of the drivers is substandard. It also said the paltry wage increases and the differentials should be revisited.
Desmond Quek, admitted, “It is unfortunate that this incident has happened. It shows that more needs to be done by Management to proactively manage and engage our Service Leaders (SLs)." Indeed
And as my description of the six-month history of this affair above has shown, my accusation of inertia, documented by The Online Citizen, is equally well-founded. This being the case, the government position that the workers deserve to be expelled, warned or tried is misplaced and unfair. It has no right to do now that it has admitted itself that their grievances were real.
Speaking for myself, as a citizen, as a worker, and not as a member of any organisation with which I am associated, I support the strike by the 184 Chinese SMRT bus drivers. They took to the picket line only because the union, the corporation and the government singularly ignored their pleas. If that means I contravene the provisions of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, then so be it. Someone has to tell the truth. These workers’ plight is not a situation I will pretend didn’t exist or should not have taken place or didn’t need to happen.