29 November 2012
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) notes with concern statements issued by some stakeholders since the SMRT labour dispute on 26 November 2012. Until key facts have been established by the police and full accounts from both employer and workers given a chance to be heard, TWC2 calls upon the Ministry of Manpower and NTUC to adopt a more measured and balanced approach to the incident.
Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin has branded the workers’ action as an ‘illegal strike’ for which there will be ‘zero tolerance’. Together with statements from NTUC and SMRT, he gave an impression that due process was available and the workers chose not to use it. From this emerges a picture of willful and irresponsible foreign workers who need to be punished in order to avoid copycat actions that would damage Singapore’s industrial relations.
TWC2 does not like to see labour disputes settled by disruptive industrial action nor does it support illegal wildcat strikes. However, in this instance, some questions need answers before the rights and wrongs of this incident can be fully understood.
A disproportionate amount of attention has focused on events from 26 November when preceding developments that precipitated the workers’ action are equally pertinent. A key concern should be how long the workers must wait to have their grievances addressed by management. This leads to another question of what the consequences are for employers who, through their action or inaction, have aggravated the situation. If ‘zero tolerance’ is the prescribed policy for workers engaged in illegal strikes, what should the consequences be for their employers who fail to adequately address their concerns?
There are claims that the workers should have taken their case through due processes available. Drawing on TWC2’s experience, there is a gap between what is offered on paper as due process and what actually happens. Given the disputes involved in this case, had the SMRT workers approached the MOM, they might have been told that their employers had not violated any Singapore law and therefore it is beyond the ken of the Ministry to assist.
Clearly, bargaining with one’s employer for a fair wage is a job for trade unions rather than individual workers. NTUC only got into the picture after the dispute erupted and stated that none of the workers were union members. Is this the best that Singapore’s industrial relations can expect from NTUC? Foreign workers doing low paid work are precisely the workers we feel that are most in need of the protection of a trade union. It’s not clear from press reports that an adequate consultation process was available. There are deeper and broader issues underlying this dispute and they include Singapore’s processes of dealing with labour disputes fairly and promptly. If public discourse is limited to the punishment of the striking workers, TWC2 fears Singapore will not learn the right lessons from this unfortunate incident.