SMRT bus drivers' strike illegal: Tan Chuan Jin

[UPDATE 28/11: All but six bus drivers from China reported to work on Wednesday, said an SMRT spokesperson.]

SMRT bus drivers from China that started a strike on Monday did so illegally, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin said on Tuesday.

"By taking matters into their own hands the drivers have clearly crossed the line," Tan said, noting that strikes are illegal for "essential services" unless they give the employer 14 days of notice of the intent to go on strike.

"These workers have disrupted public transport services and Singapore's industrial harmony. The government views these disruptions very seriously," he said.

Police, he added, are investigating the illegal strike.

"Taking the law into your own hands is wrong. This illegal strike is not acceptable and would be dealt with in accordance to the law," he asserted.

Tan made the remarks in a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. Yahoo! Singapore had not been invited to the briefing but received a copy of his remarks from the ministry afterwards.

Giving updated figures on Tuesday evening, SMRT said 88 bus drivers from China, some with valid medical reasons, did not turn up for work on Tuesday, the second day of a rare labour strike in Singapore.

On Monday, SMRT said up to 171 drivers from mainland China had refused to go to work, protesting a disparity in salary between them and other foreign bus captains. 

Drivers staying at dormitories in Woodlands were joined by roughly 50 to 60 others housed at dormitories in Serangoon from as early as before 8am, assembling in an open area outside before SMRT staff arrived to negotiate with them.

"We continue to keep our communications open with the Service Leaders, and are also working with the relevant authorities to find an amicable resolution," the transport operator said in a statement in the morning.

Police deployed several crowd control vehicles to the area throughout the day as well, with four special operations command vehicles spotted leaving the area at about 5:30pm.

Speaking to reporters in Mandarin after discussions ended at about 6pm, the drivers said their main purpose in their demonstrations was to seek a fairer pay system.

"We work the same number of hours (as Malaysian drivers), we should receive the same remuneration," said one driver in his 30s, who declined to be named. "We don't expect to earn the same as Singaporean drivers, but all foreign drivers should earn the same pay."

According to the drivers, Malaysian bus captains received larger pay increments and bonuses, while their increments were smaller, and they did not receive any bonuses.

One driver also complained of poor living conditions in the Serangoon dormitories, saying he had been bitten by bedbugs in the past, but SMRT has yet to respond to his feedback in the half year he has spent here on the job.

SMRT did previously up the salaries of its bus drivers earlier this year, but at the same time, their initial five-day work week was increased to six, allowing fewer opportunities for them to clock in overtime for additional pay.

In a statement, spokespersons for the transport operator said the drivers were "not happy" with the increment they received.

"We regret that they chose to express their unhappiness about their salaries in this manner, especially when our lines of communication with them are always open," they said.

The company also acknowledged that "a number of (its) bus services were affected", and that commuters may have experienced a longer waiting time for some of their buses, but did not elaborate further.

When asked, the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) said in a statement that they are unable to represent the drivers who were on strike as they lacked the "legal mandate" to do so, because they were not union members.

NTWU further encouraged the drivers to approach the manpower ministry or the Migrant Workers Centre for assistance, adding that it would be pleased to mediate, should their services be called upon.

The Ministry of Manpower said that it also deployed labour relations officers on Monday morning to assist in discussions between the drivers and SMRT.

Saying it takes the strike "very seriously", the ministry said that there are "appropriate grievance handling processes in place", and that workers should not "take matters into their own hands", advising them to speak with their company human resource and management representatives to resolve issues amicably.

"MOM is closely monitoring the situation and looking into the matter," it added.

Drivers whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to said despite their more than eight-hour standoff, there has not been any resolution to their negotiations, save for assurances that they would hear from the bus operator by next Monday. They said they will be going back to work on Tuesday, however.

In the meantime, some drivers say they are mulling returning to China if their requests are not met, while others said they will decide what to do when SMRT responds.

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