What now as Singapore reels from the shock of dealing with its first industrial strike in some 26 years?
From the perspective of labour economics assistant professor Walter Edgar Theseira, who teaches at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the strike and its aftermath have demonstrated “potentially serious vulnerabilities” that arise from Singapore’s significant reliance on low-cost foreign labour.
To him, in fact, the strike could be viewed in the same vein as the Foxconn industrial actions in China — as a key sign to the end of an era of low wages and poor working conditions.
“Our broader concern should not be on this particular labour dispute and the handling of it, but rather on how well our economic system can adapt to the inevitable rise in wages and working conditions that all employees — Singaporean and foreign — will expect in the future,” he told Yahoo! Singapore.
Singapore’s low-wage foreign worker employment system hinges mainly on the import not simply of the workers themselves, but also the low wages and poor working conditions of their source countries to Singapore, he noted.
“Rather than provide the wages and working conditions needed to get a Singaporean to do the job, many employers prefer to pay the much lower wage needed to convince a foreign worker to leave his/her home and come to Singapore,” he explained.
At the same time, the economies, wages, living conditions and standards of employment in countries such as China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Philippines — key sources of Singapore’s more than 1 million-strong foreign workforce — are on the rapid rise, says Theseira.
Can Singapore function without low-wage foreign workers?
Workers who are here therefore expect better, and could end up returning to their home countries if Singapore’s foreign employment system does not improve, he added — this being a situation Singapore is not yet prepared to handle with its ageing citizen population and all-time low total fertility rate of 1.16 last year.
Pointing out that as recently as in June, Singapore had 931,200 work permit holders — between a quarter to a third of its entire workforce, he said, “Our present economic system clearly could not function without them.”
Sharing similar views is James Cook University industrial relations professor Chris Leggett, who told the Wall Street Journal that Singapore’s dependence on unskilled foreign labour is “a big social issue” which yields more problems that the government needs to address.
Professor Chew Soon Beng, who also lectures in economics and industrial relations at NTU, adds that the strike and its repercussions reflect the disparity in awareness of labour laws here between local and foreign workers.
“All employers must be careful in dealing with foreign workers (as) they come in under different contracts,” he said, noting the importance of paying extra attention to showing workers the total wages and costs involved for nationality-specific contracts.
Chew also pointed out that what the Chinese bus drivers did was in fact “normal” in their home country, as well as in the U.S., for example. He cautioned that SMRT, for which some 22.5 per cent of its 2,000 bus drivers hail from China, should take this into account and “be ahead of the curve, so to speak”.
With this in mind, he says it is vital that employers of foreign workers address their concerns, should they have any to air.
Non-profit migrant worker organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) also stressed the importance of the developments that led up to Monday’s and Tuesday’s strike.
“A key concern should be how long the workers must wait to have their grievances addressed by management,” it said in a statement.
“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?”
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