Former SMRT bus driver: Why we went on strike (Part 1)

Foreign workers wait for their transportation to work outside their dormitory in Singapore on November 26, 2012. More than 100 mainland Chinese bus drivers in Singapore refused to work in a rare case of labour mass action in the city-state. AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN

[UPDATE: On 20 April - correcting details about drivers' complaint to MOM in 2010: The MOM did handle the drivers' non-statutory concerns (the bulk of the issues surfaced apart from that of the drivers' passports being withheld) that included dormitory conditions and unequal pay structures by surfacing them to then-SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa. That the operator subsequently failed to act on the drivers' concerns resulted in He Jun Ling's comment that their concerns were neglected since they were first surfaced between 2009 and 2010. Read the MOM's response in our story here, and their full statement on the matter here.]

n a recent hour-long phone interview with
Yahoo! Singapore, former SMRT bus driver He Jun Ling opens up to JEANETTE TAN and PEACE CHIU to share the story behind why and how more than 170 bus drivers ended up going on a two-day strike against their employer on the morning of 26 November 2012. In this first part, he shares that the strike was a last-resort measure that really was more than two years in the making.

At 1pm on Sunday, 30 March 2013, former SMRT bus driver He Jun Ling officially became a free man.

After signing his release papers, and carrying just a brown backpack containing all of his belongings from his two years in Singapore, the 33-year-old was immediately escorted to the Changi Airport police post, and into an airplane bound for Henan, China, that same afternoon.

This, followed by a lengthy, bumpy bus ride home, ended almost two years He spent away from his wife, his five-year-old daughter, relatives and friends in a tiny island more than 3,000 kilometres away.

Despite quite a harrowing end to his short-lived time spent in Singapore — comprising participation in Singapore’s largest industrial action in 26 years, a painful interrogation process, months of court proceedings and a seven-week jail sentence — He told Yahoo! Singapore he has no regrets in anything he did while here.

“After being released (from prison), I learned that SMRT has made significant improvements in its treatment of bus drivers from China,” said He in Mandarin over the phone from his parents’ home in Henan.

He was referring to a new pay scheme starting this month which was implemented by the transport operator for all of its bus captains. The new scheme promises to evaluate and reward all bus drivers on a common set of performance indicators. This includes an annual wage supplement and a year-end annual variable bonus in place of the initial ex-gratia and sign-on bonuses given to Chinese bus captains on two-year contracts like the one He was on.

Since the events that unfolded on 26 and 27 November last year, much has also been done on SMRT’s end to improve its communication channels with its bus captains, noted He, and it is these remedial actions that reassure him that his sacrifice was not in vain.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot from this experience, and I’m satisfied that after this happened, people came forward to solve the problem — and in doing so, bus drivers from China were able to benefit from this,” he said.

He, a high school graduate, was one of four bus drivers who were identified and charged as key players in a mass strike involving nearly 170 others over two days, the first of this scale since a shipyard workers’ strike in 1986.

The mass labour action created shockwaves not only across Singapore’s tiny island but reverberated around the world, drawing significant scrutiny on the city-state’s labour practices, treatment of its foreign workers and the intensifying tensions between citizens and foreigners.

Heavy costs were paid on the part of the drivers who participated in the strike. Apart from He, four others were jailed six weeks, 29 were deported and a further 150 were issued police warnings for their involvement. As for He, he said he was required to sign an agreement promising never to step foot on Singapore’s shores again — not as a worker, not as a tourist, not at all.

“I still think Singapore is a good place, though,” he said a number of times during the interview. “In terms of its environment, infrastructure and standard of living... it’s a small place, but it’s well-managed and governed.”

Cleanliness of dorm not primary concern

While in prison, He stayed with two other inmates, describing the cell he stayed in as “relatively clean and acceptable”. Discipline was fairly strict, as would be expected, and inmates were allowed an hour of outdoor activity time each day, although all were treated equally by guards there.

Asked how this compared with his experience staying in the bus drivers’ dormitories, he said he would not look at the issue that way, given that his main beef with the latter went beyond living conditions.

“What we were saying was that in the dorms we stayed in (provided by SMRT), drivers from the morning, afternoon and night shifts all stayed together in the same room and we all affected one another with our movements at different times — we couldn’t rest,” he said. “We aren’t expecting a spotless living environment; the key is to have one that is quiet and that allows us to rest — and we weren’t provided with that.”

Strike was a year (or more) in the making

Living conditions were but one of a long list of concerns He developed from the first month he began working in Singapore — July 2011.

At that point, He said his first priority was to join a union here, and he sought help at three different management levels within SMRT to do this but was told he was not allowed.

“I personally asked the company three times for permission... and they rejected me all three times, telling me that our (Chinese) contracts were different from the Malaysian ones — ours were two-year contracts while theirs were long-term ones — and those on two-year contracts cannot join the union,” he said.

Conversely, labour chief Lim Swee Say said in the wake of the strike that foreign workers are allowed to join the unions here, and are in fact encouraged to, except that the membership take-up rate for the National Transport Workers’ Union was much lower with SMRT bus drivers than it was at SBS Transit.

Long before He even started work in Singapore, in fact, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) was aware of the concerns raised by the SMRT bus drivers, he said, citing a petition submitted to the ministry in 2010 by a group of Chinese bus drivers, two of whom were among the group of four (including He) who were first arrested and charged for their involvement in the strike.

This carried some 185 signatures, raising concerns about living conditions, disparities in compensation and bonuses and the fact that SMRT held on to the passports of the drivers throughout their two-year stints, only returning them when they finished their contracts and were sent home.

Despite this, he said, the MOM only assisted the drivers with the issue of passport withholding, noting at the time that as they were only able to directly deal with complaints where the law was flouted, it would forward the remaining issues that were raised to then-SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa.

It subsequently did as promised, but the transport operator failed to act on its requests to address them.

On the issue of salaries, he said he and his colleagues informed their supervisor of their concerns, who then forwarded their complaints to human resources, but according to him, no one got back to them.

“From six months in (on the job), I observed all these things personally and decided to act on them,” said He, who first approached management at the end-2011.

“So the strike was essentially an entire year — more than that, actually — in the making, and an amalgamation of a whole list of concerns we had,” he continued, mentioning the two rounds of salary increments that excluded Chinese bus drivers, their subsequent $75 raise and the change from a five- to six-day work week without proper communication or change to the drivers’ contracts or remuneration. “Their (SMRT) methods were very high-handed.”

Situation exacerbated by gastric illness

To make matters worse, He said that just one year after his arrival, irregularly-scheduled mealtimes from changing shifts resulted in him developing severe gastric pains.

“We had scheduled mealtimes in our shifts — we might eat lunch at 9 or 10 in the morning, and our mealtimes differed quite greatly from the usual time we’re supposed to so (for me,) my stomach didn’t feel well,” he said. “Other drivers also felt discomfort from the irregularity of our meals but none of them got it as bad as I did.”

He went for a gastroscopy at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, was prescribed medication and was advised to return for a follow-up in January this year. After He was sentenced to jail, though, plans for that were shelved.

‘It wouldn’t be considered a strike back home’

According to He, the drivers — and those who organised the strike — did not realise they were breaking the law.

“In China, you do need to apply to strike as well, but under our circumstances it wouldn’t be considered a strike back home,” he explained. “We stayed at our quarters, we didn’t walk out on our stations of employment; it can be said that we all were at home. I don’t see how we broke the law or went on a mass strike, there were no demonstrations. We wouldn’t have been prosecuted if we did this in China.”

He also said he did not know about the laws in Singapore regarding strikes, and was not aware about the need to provide advance notice or apply for permission to go on one.

“But what I do want to say is SMRT did not allow us to join any unions, so we didn’t even have the right to apply to carry out a strike. So for them to tell us that we need to apply to strike is a laughable decree, really.”

In fact, on the first day of the strike, MOM officers were present to negotiate a settlement for the drivers, but not once did any of them inform the latter that what they were doing was against the law, he said.

After an unfruitful first day of discussions, officers from the ministry failed to return to resume negotiations where they had left off on the second morning of the strike. Hours later, acting manpower minister  Tan Chuan-jin declared that what they were doing was illegal, and that they should be dealt with “in accordance to the law”.

“Nobody (from MOM) came to talk to us on the second day, there was no communication... they had a reconciliatory attitude on the first day, so why the sudden 180-degree switch?” he asked. “You’re avoiding tackling the issue head-on... (and) I just really think there’s much room for improvement in the way they (the MOM) dealt with it.”

Negotiations from the two-day strike resulted in SMRT giving the Chinese bus drivers an across-the-board $25 increment in their pay.

SMRT reasoning on pay disparity ‘illogical’

So does He accept the counter-arguments put forward by SMRT on why Chinese bus drivers were paid less than Malaysian bus drivers?

No. In fact, their explanation is illogical, and effectively “pulling wool over our eyes”, said He.

“It’s illogical that they’re using differing living circumstances to justify company policy,” he said. “Have they considered the fact that we (Chinese drivers) leave our homes and families for two years without being able to meet at all? It’s very rhetorical — how can one put a price on the bonds of family? How will SMRT compensate us for that?”

He says he believes that even though Malaysian drivers have to commute long distances between their homes and Singapore, they are still happy to do it since they get to see their families every day.

“This can’t be bought or paid for... and Malaysian drivers are really earning a lot more than us,” he added. “We’re not asking for the exact same amount of pay as them; we’re just seeking equal treatment. We just want them to view us the same, whether we’re Malaysian or Chinese. That should be the basic requirement for any company.

“I think a different pay scale based on nationality does not make sense,” he continued. “We must all start on equal footing. We’re doing the same work, the same job. We should start at the same level. Whoever performs better, whoever contributes more, should be rewarded accordingly. I think no matter where a person works or where a worker is from, these principles should apply.”

Interrogation abuse ‘was just an unfortunate incident’

Asked separately about the physical abuse he previously told documentary filmmaker Lynn Lee about while being interrogated by investigators, He said he will not be pursuing it further.

“The police did seek us out to understand the situation (surrounding the interrogation) better. We gave them statements, and they were very gracious and polite about the whole thing,” he said, adding that officers even visited him twice while in prison to ask him if he wished to pursue the case and press charges against the officers in question.

“I told them I didn’t plan to, since I would be heading straight home. I didn’t want to press charges; it was just an unfortunate incident in my view,” he said. “I didn’t come here to start trouble... when they asked whether we wanted to file a police report, we said we never planned to. After our release we will return to China and not pursue this further.”

Looking back on the entire episode, He said, “It's really bad that we had to resort to a strike. Singapore needs to have better procedures and systems in place to allow workers to express their concerns and unhappiness at the workplace. They need proper channels to voice out their views. They didn't exist for us. No one helped us, no one responded to our requests for help.”

Now that he’s back home, He says he needs to rest and recuperate for a period — owing to his ongoing gastric problems — and he still isn’t sure when he will be able to start working again.

One thing’s for sure, though — he has no immediate plans to seek employment overseas.

In the second part of ‘Why we went on strike’, He Jun Ling shares his views on xenophobia and integration of foreign workers in Singapore.

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