Tag Archives: Strike

What is a contract worth in Singapore?

I think Singapore fancies itself as a respected and admired global player that can attract the best people and businesses. Certainly the PAP would like us to think this way – that we must attract international investment and MNCs to make up for our lack of natural resources. But to be successful this strategy depends on certain factors. Rule of law is important to international businesses, so is the enforceability of contracts. Do you think billion dollar big businesses are run on a handshake? Business agreements rely on contracts and a reliable legal system. So when I read that the striking SMRT bus drivers had apparently had their employment contracts disregarded by SMRT I was slightly surprised.

As reported by TOC and others [1][2], the drivers originally came to Singapore on employment contracts requiring a 5 day working week. This was subsequently replaced with a 6 day working week contract, for less money on a pro-rata basis, and the drivers don’t seem to have had any chance for constructive discussion on that at all. Is it fair? I know I would hate that. I doubt Teo Ser Luck or any other PAP minister can understand this point, since parliament only sits 30 days out of the year, but being required to work an extra day a week seems extremely unfair to me. It seems obvious that if the drivers had been given a fair chance to negotiate the re-writing of their contracts, a fair deal agreeable to all parties could have been worked out, and this whole mess could have been avoided. But the reality is that the drivers have been trying to engage with MOM and SMRT for months, and have been ignored for months. When going through the “proper channels” leads nowhere, and people get ignored for months on end, what do you expect to happen, really?

So we have a government controlled company that can just re-write hundreds of contracts and ignore the very legitimate complaints of their counterparty. Deaf to all criticism, that is what they would like you to think. The reality actually is that the PAP is not deaf, it is hyper sensitive to criticism, and the system depends on silencing all critics, hence deportation and imprisonment (and the ISA). But such short-sighted and heavy-handed tactics inevitably lead to blowback, which we can see already with protests in HK [3] and Human Rights Watch calling for the release of the prisoners [4]. Singapore is being shown in a terribly bad light on the global stage and it is because of the incompetence of the PAP, signalling to the world that they don’t treat people fairly.

But the real blowback will not be felt immediately. Maybe it will take a few months or even a year, or perhaps a few years, but by treating people unfairly and not honouring contracts, the government will start to squander international confidence in our country, in our system, in the Singapore model. And once that happens Singapore will be on a downward slope, because like it or not, Singapore cannot easily flourish if it is isolated – there will always be foreign companies, foreign ideas, even some foreigners with real talents, that we should try to attract to our shores. In a country where 60% of GDP is attributable to government linked companies, government mistakes and incompetence can have a hugely damaging effect on our economy, so it is all the more inexcusable for the PAP to have allowed this situation to develop.

Indeed, it is hard to comprehend the level of incompetence that could have allowed such a dangerous situation to develop. Ignored by the senior management of their government controlled employer, receiving no meaningful representation from government controlled unions, and clearly receiving no helpful support from the government’s Ministry of Manpower, it is not hard to understand why these Chinese workers ended up having no faith in Singapore’s “Tripartite Model” and decided to take matters into their own hands. Refusing to go to work is the oldest trick in the book for disgruntled staff and anyone with some sense would realise people who suffer unfairness and ill-treatment may resort to this or something similar eventually. I know some would like you to believe that the Chinese drivers should just go home, but remember (and know that SMRT knows this very well) that the Chinese drivers are surely indebted to employment agencies back home, so the prospect of just packing up and leaving would probably leave them in serious financial hardship – the workers were effectively trapped in a very difficult situation with nowhere else to turn.

And remember one more thing. The strike worked. A few ring leaders were arrested and some drivers deported, but the vast majority were let off with a simple warning, and will now be upgraded to HDB flats [5], and they will also receive a pay rise of $25, back-dated to July [6]. SMRT would like you to think that the pay rise was actually decided before the strike but I find that hard to believe, presumably because management and the government do not want to let on about the benefits that can be won by fighting.

[1] http://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/05/smrt-bus-service-drivers-blow-the-whistle/
[2] http://theonlinecitizen.com/2012/12/you-can-resign-and-go-to-sbs-the-drivers-were-told/
[3] http://www.todayonline.com/World/EDC121205-0000125/HK-trade-unionists-protest-over-Spore-bus-strike-clampdown
[4] http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/05/singapore-drop-charges-against-bus-strike-leaders
[5] http://entertainment.xin.msn.com/en/radio/938live/singaporenews.aspx?cp-documentid=251235356
[6] http://www.todayonline.com/Hotnews/EDC121204-0000026/No-further-pay-raise-for-China-drivers–SMRT

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