On 26 November 2012, 171 bus drivers from SMRT Corp did not turn up for work. Many of them did the same again the following day. Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin called it an “illegal strike” saying that public transport services had been classed as “essential services”. Five drivers were charged with criminal offences under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. Bao Fengshan was the first to go to trial, where he pleaded guilty on Monday, 3 December 2012, and was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment.
The other four, Liu Xiangying, Gao Yueqiang, Wang Xianjie and He Junling accepted the help of various concerned parties, including TWC2 Executive Committee member Shelley Thio (acting in her personal capacity). Shelley put up bail for He Junling. Pro-bono lawyers were also found for them.
Transient Workers Count Too undertook to find and pay for accommodation for the four men so that they could have a place a stay while consulting lawyers and preparing their defence. We also provided counselling to help ensure that they remained calm and rational when deciding on their course of action.
On 9 December 2012, soon after accommodation was arranged, the four men met with TWC2 volunteer reporter Xinlin. The editor’s brief to Xinlin was to uncover and describe in a nutshell the dissatisfactions leading up to the industrial action. This is her report:
When the four men came to the TWC2 office that Sunday evening, it was their wary glances and withdrawn postures that first grabbed our attention. Their reaction was fully understandable. What had been for them a necessary and justified response to mistreatment by their employers had exploded into a political circus. They had just spent a week or so in remand (Editor: two of them would later allege in a video interview that they were briefly beaten by police interrogators). Government ministers were declaring them guilty even before they faced a judge. The world’s spotlight was on them. Local and international media scrutinised their every move after calling their actions Singapore’s first labour strike in 26 years.
For He Junling, Wang Xianjie, Gao Yueqiang and Liu Xiangying, the incident that happened on 26 November 2012 — in which 171 Chinese bus drivers refused to work in protest against an employer whom they felt were reneging on promises — was an act of desperation borne out of a long chain of ignored and unresolved grievances.
Over the course of the conversation, they began to open up to us.
All four men had been recruited by agencies in China. Each man had paid a sum of money to the agents: He Junling, who is from Henan, paid 25,000 yuan (about S$5,000), Gao paid 27,000 yuan (S$5,400) while Liu and Wang paid a startling amount of 42,000 yuan (S$8,400) each. As with many migrant workers, promises of higher earnings than they could get in China and a better way of life for their families were alluring prospects, worth the initial fees.
Recalling what they saw and heard at the recruitment stage, a former SMRT driver was brought in to make a presentation. This ex-driver spoke of how, over a period of more than two years of working in Singapore, he had saved about 200,000 yuan.
Moreover, the employment agents assured them that they could count on a monthly gross salary of S$2,000 at the very least, after factoring in overtime and guaranteed allowances. “He even told us the salary sums would be so abundant that we would be quite ‘frightened’,” said Wang Xianjie from Jilin province with a sarcastic laugh.
They certainly did not expect what lay ahead of them in Singapore.
At the beginning of June this year, it was announced that the five-day work week would be changed to six working days, and this would take effect from 1 July 2012. According to the men, they only found out about the change from an announcement put up on the noticeboard; they were not consulted beforehand. This was despite the fact that the workers had come to Singapore based on promises of a five-day week.
This change caused unhappiness among Singaporean and Malaysian drivers too.
However, it appeared that the Chinese drivers (and probably the Singaporean and Malaysian ones too) regularly worked six days a week even before, though the sixth day was previously considered overtime. The roster change meant less opportunity for overtime and a lower net pay.
Allowances made discretionary
On top of this, the monthly S$230 of performance bonus and attendance incentive – an amount that had previously been given to them each time without fail, would also now be discretionary – subject to customers’ feedback, and road accidents.
Between the changes in roster and allowances, the men said they suffered a monthly salary reduction of over a few hundred dollars. They were sore that the initial promises of minimum gross income of S$2,000 was not being kept.
The accommodation that the men stayed in was another problem. There were two dormitories for SMRT bus drivers – one in Serangoon, and the other in Woodlands. Eight men were confined to a room with double decker beds. The dormitory at Woodlands had a kitchen for the men to cook in, but there was no divider which separated the kitchen from the sleeping area. As a result, smoke from the kitchen would often flow into the room and flood the place with smell. Arguments over this were common.
There was no washing machine and no fridge, and only four tiny fans to keep the room cool. A rubbish heap was located directly right outside the kitchen, where one could see rats, cockroaches and lizards scuttling around. Due to the unhygienic and cramped living conditions, dengue fever was a real possibility, and numerous men had come down with it, the men said.
Having eight men with different working shifts living in the same room also meant that sleep became a luxury.
“The people working the other shift would come home and the lights would be switched on, or there will be movement in the room,” they tell us. “We wouldn’t be able to sleep. At most, we can only get 2-3 hours of sleep every day,”
For these men who had to work long hours the next day, getting little to no sleep was particularly draining.
In an attempt to seek assistance and voice out their issues, they tried contacting the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU), the four said. However, they were told by an NTWU official that due to a difference in contractual and employment terms, Chinese workers were not allowed to join the union, unlike their Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts.
We ask if they have tried contacting the Ministry of Manpower about this.
No, they say, explaining that three years ago a group of workers had gone to MOM with similar issues. The issues were never properly resolved, said the four. Although those workers returned to their jobs at SMRT, over time, all of them were terminated and repatriated.
“We know its a dead end where this is concerned,” Gao says, “so what’s the use of seeking help from MOM?”
Adds He Junling: “We never expected the work here to be so stressful and the working hours so long. This was also something the agent didn’t mention to me. It is even more stressful than back home in China.”
Although the SMRT issue is a high-profile one, the issues raised by these drivers are experienced by many other migrant workers in different jobs:
- Big promises made by employment agents in the home country;
- High agent fees that cause the workers to feel trapped when the job conditions turn out to be different from promised;
- Employers who change the terms of the job (and salaries) unilaterally;
- No avenues for mediation and no help from MOM;
- Complaining only leads to premature termination.
In short, many find themselves at the mercy of employers, in a situation when their salary and livelihood, and along with them, the fate of their families back home, are under the full control of their employers. These workers often find themselves trapped – torn between survival and dignity.
Mr Liu is 33 years old this year and the sole breadwinner of his family, which includes his wife, 7-year-old daughter and both elderly parents. His 65-year-old mother suffered a stroke some time ago and can no longer support herself. As a result, money needs to be sent back home constantly.
He tells me that despite the fact that perhaps nothing has changed at SMRT, what is important is that the matter has been highlighted and made public.
What they were fighting for from the very beginning, he added, was a inalienable and irrefutable right that belongs to every human being: the right to dignity.
But what did their families think of the situation they have now found themselves in? What are their wives hoping for right now? We ask.
“To go back home safely – nothing more,” Mr Liu answers.
We ask if they’ll find another job immediately upon their return to China.
“Of course,” Mr Wang puts in without hesitation, laughing at the naivete of the question.
“This is not an age where one can rest easy,” he continues. “There is a family to support and too many mouths to feed.”
Editor’s post-script: After much thought and consultation with lawyers, the four men decided to accept the prosecution’s offer of reduced charges. The Chinese embassy in Singapore also helped behind the scenes to close the gap between what the prosecution initially wanted and what the men were prepared to accept. On 25 February 2013, they pleaded guilty. He Junling was sentenced to seven weeks’ imprisonment; the other three got six weeks each. They were taken to jail immediately and will be deported once they have served their sentences.