Bus driver community split over mass labour strike

Some SMRT bus drivers feel that their Chinese colleagues should rightly be earning less than their Malaysian counterparts. (Yahoo! photo)

UPDATE on Wed 28/11: All but six bus drivers from China reported to work on Wednesday, said an SMRT spokesperson. Meanwhile, local media reported some bus drivers were called in by police Wednesday though no arrests were made.

While bus captains from China do work the same hours as drivers of other nationalities, it's fair that they are paid less because they get transportation and housing, say some SMRT bus drivers.

Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore on an anonymous basis on Tuesday, several Singaporean and Malaysian bus drivers in general voiced this sentiment in the wake of Monday’s full-day Chinese bus drivers’ strike.
“(Chinese bus drivers) shouldn’t be paid the same amount (as Malaysians) because they have lodging here,” said one Singaporean driver who has been with SMRT for four years. “They also have transport to and fro, whereas Malaysians have to travel back home across the Causeway every day.”
“They (Chinese and Malaysian nationals) probably shouldn’t be earning the same amount since they (the Chinese) are provided with accommodation,” echoed another local bus captain, who has worked with both SBS Transit and SMRT over more than 20 years.
Noting further that the terms for salary arrangements would have been agreed upon before the drivers first came to Singapore, he said that if they were not violated or changed in any way upon their arrival, the drivers in question should by right have nothing to complain about.

Other drivers adopted a more moderate view of the situation, however, and said they could see where the striking bus captains were coming from.

"I do think they should earn equal pay," said a 60-year-old Singaporean driver, who has worked more than 10 years with SMRT. "After all, they work the same hours and have the same duties."

Another local bus captain said he felt that it would be fair for the transport operator to up the pay of the Chinese drivers by a certain percentage, but taking into account additional accommodation costs, he, too, said it should eventually still come to below the amount Malaysian drivers earn.

"They could maybe negotiate a small increment, maybe up to 20 to 30 per cent less than Malaysian drivers given the accommodation issue," he said. "I do think their pay system should be fairer but at the same time I think it's a tough situation."

One Malaysian bus driver who spoke to Yahoo! Singapore was visibly annoyed at Monday's strike, saying the move to do so was "irresponsible and uncalled for".

"First of all, they should have approached the management first to discuss things," he said. "Going on strike is illegal and we all understand that."

He shared that starting out as a bus driver here, his base pay was about $650 a month. Coupled with a twice-daily commute between Johor and work, he said Malaysian bus drivers don't have it as easy as their Chinese colleagues, for whom accommodation and transport is provided to and from their respective bus depots.

"We (Malaysians) have been here for more than 10 years, how can they compare with us?" he asked. "Even if a Malaysian and a Chinese driver have the same amount of experience, housing rental isn't cheap here -- it eventually adds up."

In fact, he said, if any comparison should be done, it should be between Chinese and new Singaporean drivers, who are offered significantly more in pay than drivers of any other nationality.

"In any case, Indian bus drivers (who hold PR) are paid the same as us -- they also have to settle their own housing arrangements," he said. "Why only pinpoint us? Why drag us into this?"

Asked for her views on the strike, however, one female driver from China said she fully supported it, but did not join it for fear of losing her job.

"They may say that we are given accommodation, but have you seen the accommodation they give us? It isn't fit for humans," she said in Mandarin. "Eight of us share a room, and there isn't any walking space between our beds. I've also been bitten by rats and insects on multiple occasions before."

Nonetheless, she said all that is still bearable compared to the disparity in pay they receive for their work.

"This really is unfair to us. We do the exact same work, work for the same number of hours and yet we don't receive the same compensation. Our living conditions back home are far, far better than they are here."

On Monday, more than 170 SMRT bus captains from China went on a full-day strike at their Woodlands dormitories to protest the disparity in pay they received compared to their Malaysian counterparts.

While some of them returned to work on Tuesday, almost 90 of them persisted in their strike, as trade union representatives attempted to mediate discussions between them and SMRT.

The transport operator said in a statement on Tuesday evening that it has also filed a police report over "possible breaches of the law", while conducting internal investigations to determine whether or not employment terms had been breached.

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