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SMRT strike – it’s about employees, not nationalities

Singaporeans should realise that the SMRT bus drivers' strike is not about nationalities but about their own rights …

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The government's online feedback portal, REACH, reported that "over seven in 10Singaporeans surveyed felt that… SMRT's China bus drivers were wrong to have staged last week's illegal strike."

Today newspaper reported the findings as such: "The majority of Singaporeans thought that the Chinese bus drivers involved in last week's strike should have taken up their grievances to SMRT through the proper channels…"

The results of the survey were also reported by the broadsheet, The Straits Times.

However, in what seems to be an entirely different result, a poll by news portal Channel NewsAsia indicated that 64.2 per cent of those polled agreed with the SMRT drivers' strike action. Those who voted were responding to the poll question: "Should SMRT's bus drivers have resorted to the strike?"

What should we make of these differences in public opinion?

For one, the REACH survey — which involved those 15-years old and above — was conducted with 313 people. That's too small a size perhaps to have any representative significance for the wider population of 3.2 million Singaporeans. Also, some of the survey questions seem to be rather dubiously crafted, such as this one:

"If the bus drivers from China are found to have breached Singapore's law, they should be punished to the full extent of the law, as Singapore has zero tolerance for illegal strikes?"

This term - "zero tolerance for illegal strikes" — was first used by Minister of Manpower, Tan Chuan Jin, in his reaction to the strike. Since then, it has also been used by the mainstream media here. While such opinions may be held by some, to include it in a survey question is highly questionable. It could be seen as a "leading question", one which nudges a respondent to a certain desired conclusion or answer — since we purportedly have "zero tolerance" for "illegal strikes", then of course perpetrators must be punished and be punished to the "full extent of the law."

As for the Channel NewsAsia's poll, the details of the poll are unclear. We do not know how many had voted, or their backgrounds. So, while it is an interesting result, we should perhaps not take it too seriously either, unless the details of the poll are made known.

What would in fact matter more and be a more meaningful exercise is for all of us to delve into the employment and labour rights issues. If we get stuck with arguing whether Singaporeans support the strike or not, we would have lost an opportunity to address the many underlying issues which the strike has raised — and there is none as important and significant than this one: the huge imbalance of power between the employee and the employer. And this has to do not just with foreign workers but with local workers as well.

Our government, as can be seen from the reaction and remarks of various officials to the strike, is so enamoured and protective of businesses that none of its officers seemed to have spoken with any conviction on behalf of the workers, even as the MOM and the SMRT acknowledged the SMRT's failings and shortcomings. Minister Tan, for example, was moved to only say "SMRT should have done better as an employer."

But more than just admitting failures, we should recognise that there is an urgent need to address the fundamental issues, and there are many, which pertain to the relationship between the worker/employee and the employer.

As this SMRT incident has shown, workers are expected to "go through the proper channels" to have their grievances addressed. Failure to do so would evidently have serious consequences. For the employer, however, it could get away with nothing more than just a few words of admonishment even after it admits its failings.

Who would take the SMRT to task, beyond just a slap on the wrist?

While one does not condone illegal behaviour and actions, one should also not pretend that "proper channels" exist always, or that they are effective in addressing certain situations or problems. There are many instances and examples of foreign workers being left in the lurch, abused, exploited, even after they have gone through the "proper channels."

And foreign workers continue to face these things. Poor living conditions, for example, which the SMRT drivers complained about, is not a new problem. It has been raised many times in the past, by activists, non-governmental organisations, and bloggers. So, really, it is not a question of going through the "proper channels" but a question of conviction, of respecting the basic rights of workers, and the willingness and capability of enforcing these conditions and rights.

The swiftness with which 29 of the SMRT employees were called in, questioned, found guilty and summarily deported — all within a week — is something which we should be concerned about and indeed question. Were they given legal advice, or given access to legal representation? Should our laws be changed in order to provide such rights to workers?

To continue to parrot the argument that the workers did not and should not have taken things into their own hands is to be blind to the reality these workers face. And to stick our heads in the sand, while trumpeting the righteousness of dealing with illegal action swiftly, is to ignore the bigger issue here of the power imbalance between the employee and her employer.

The government's extreme pro-business attitude needs to be addressed and re-looked. It is perhaps the most important issue here, giving rise to the skewed labour landscape for employees, both local and foreign.

For Singaporeans, they should realise that the issues arising from the strike last week is not about nationalities. They are instead about their own rights as employees, and whether they have adequate representation when it comes to addressing grievances of their own. In short, it is about us as employees, and not which land we come from.

Andrew helms publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo! Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011.

Related stories:

SMRT bus driver strike: Were they really treated fairly?
SMRT bus driver strike: A sign of things to come?
Singapore bus driver strike makes world news

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