[UPDATE on 3 Dec 2012: Fifth bus driver sentenced to six weeks' jail, 29 drivers deported on Sunday]
A fifth SMRT bus driver from mainland China charged over an illegal strike held early last week, was sentenced to six weeks' jail on Monday.
Summoned to the subordinate courts Monday morning to face one charge of commencing an illegal strike, Bao Feng Shan, 38, pleaded guilty at his first opportunity to do so, saying he was "deeply remorseful" for his actions and did not want his daughter to have a convict father.
In an oral judgement delivered in court, Senior District Judge See Kee Oon said Bao's involvement in the strike was "calculated to cause disruption and inconvenience transport services".
Despite noting his plea for leniency and the fact that he accepted responsibility for his conduct, See said, "Nevertheless, deterrence must be the primary consideration, and a custodial (jail) sentence is warranted."
Earlier Monday morning, deputy public prosecutor Peggy Pao said that in a meeting with SMRT and Ministry of Manpower officials on 26 November, Bao made "a number of threatening comments, that intimated that a further strike may happen should the demands of the PRC service leaders not be met within a week to the SMRT and MOM representatives".
In mitigation, Bao apologised to the Singapore government, SMRT and his family for his actions.
Tearing up as he asked for a fine instead of a jail sentence, he said he wanted to be home for his daughter's birthday in late December. He added that his parents are farmers from China and his wife, a factory worker, is at home because of an injury.
Pao, however, argued that if Bao does not go to jail, "it may encourage others to do the same and claim remorse to escape a custodial sentence".
Bao was charged under Section 9(1) of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, Chapter 67, which deems illegal the commencement, continuation or furtherance of an illegal strike, owing to the extent of his involvement in the strike, having taken medical leave on both days and for his "threatening comments" issued to mediating representatives during Monday's meeting.
The 29 had been kept at Admiralty West Prison after being rounded up early on Saturday morning.
In a hastily arranged press conference later on Saturday, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said these latest actions were "deliberate and measured" and had been taken after police had "substantially completed" its investigation into the "planned and pre-meditated" mass strike that first involved 171 bus drivers on 26 November.
The bus drivers who persisted in the strike were absent on either or both days of the illegal strike without reason. Even though some had medical certificates, there was enough evidence of their involvement in the strike.
'Why did this happen?'
"What the workers did was wrong and illegal – however, SMRT, as the employer, could have done better in managing their labour grievances and concerns," said the Minister, who added that the transport company must take steps to ensure that "a severe breakdown in labour relations like what we saw this week does not happen again".
"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," he added.
Police warnings will also be issued to the remaining bus drivers who participated in the strike but no other actions will be taken as they showed remorse over their actions, or were even coerced into participating.
A joint statement by MOM and Ministry of Home Affairs said that barring any new developments, no further arrests or repatriations related to the illegal strike will be made.
SMRT also added that the 29 bus drivers who will be repatriated will be paid, before they leave the country, all salaries for 1 December 2012, all claims owed to them if any, and given ex gratia bonuses on a pro-rated basis.
Extra drivers mobilised
In the meantime, 45 additional drivers will be mobilised within the week to ensure there is minimal service disruption due to the arrests and repatriation. It will take SMRT another two to three months to recruit new drivers and train them.
Earlier on Thursday, four Chinese nationals were charged for engaging in a conspiracy to get SMRT bus drivers to take part in an illegal strike earlier this week.
Those charged -- He Jun Ling, 32; Gao Yue Qiang, 32; Weng Xianjie, 39; and Liu Xiangying, 33 -- had been arrested by police over Wednesday and Thursday. If convicted, they -- along with the fifth driver -- will face a fine not exceeding $2,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or both on each charge.
Seen as the ringleaders, Gao, Weng and Liu each face one count while He faces two counts of inciting SMRT workmen on Sunday evening at Block 21 Woodlands Sector 1 to take part in the strike, which started the day after.
According to the charge sheets, He made a post in the Chinese language on http://tieba.baidu.com titled "The insults and humiliations suffered by Singapore drivers (SMRT) (where is the dignity of the People's Republic of China bus drivers)"
"... [I]f a few hundred Chinese nationals take the lead, I am afraid the management of SMRT will be fired instead, not that we do not know the traffic situation in Singapore, a few hundred bus drivers do not report for work for a few days, there will be public outcry in Singapore," he said in the post.
"Rational and hot-blooded fellow workers have to take action! Let's go on MC together tomorrow, 26, Monday and 27, Tuesday. We have to depend on ourselves for our dignity and interest..."
He asked that the message be relayed to as many as possible and for them not to be afraid of traitors.
"Boycott and despise those who are not taking any action, they will suffer guilty conscience. It concerns the interest of everybody," he concluded.
Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo said on Thursday the government had to take the strike "very seriously", noting that the police pressed charges after establishing the facts.
"Maintaining industrial harmony is especially important for Singapore, particularly because public transport is an essential service," she said. "As for the next course of action, the police are continuing investigations and need to assess whether further action needs to be taken. The charges have been read out, I suggest we not speculate further."
"We value the industrial harmony that we have built up over the years, and what has happened has damaged (this), and swift action must be carried out," added Minister of State for Manpower and Health Amy Khor. "We cannot tolerate employees taking matters into their own hands, and I think we need to continue to stress the fact that there are rules to follow and processes in place."
On Monday, over 170 SMRT bus drivers from China staying at a workers' dormitory in Woodlands refused to go to work in protest over the disparity in their pay compared to their Malaysian counterparts.
More than half the number also did not turn up on Tuesday but but Wednesday all the workers except those with medical reasons had gone back to work.
Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin called the mass action as an "illegal strike" that was "unacceptable" and would be dealt with accordance to the law.
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