[Updated on Monday, 747pm with Ministry of Manpower's response]
The Ministry of Manpower says the accusations by civil society group Function 8 earlier on Monday morning are "entirely baseless".
In a statement released on Monday morning, the group had said the four bus drivers from mainland China being charged in court “were clearly doomed from the start” when acting minister for manpower Tan Chuan-Jin used the term "illegal strike" to describe the mass labour protest of over 180 SMRT bus drivers in the ministry’s first press conference.
“The repeated allegation... that the refusal of the bus drivers to report for work constituted an ‘illegal strike’ gives the impression that what the bus drivers had done was ‘illegal’,” the group wrote. “Since the cases have not been determined by the court, it is grievously wrong and prejudicial to the bus drivers to label their action as an ‘illegal strike’.”
But in a statement to the media later on Monday, MOM said Minister Tan never attempted to prejudice the case.
It cited Part III of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act or CLTPA which clearly outlines that strike action taken in respect of essential services such as public transport would be deemed illegal, unless 14 days notice has been given.
MOM said Minister Tan’s comments to call it “an illegal strike” were made with that in mind, and he referred to workers participating in the strike in general.
MOM also said the 29 bus drivers that were eventually repatriated were provided with an opportunity to be heard in relation to their conduct during the strike, and that their work permits were only revoked after due consideration by the Controller of Work Passes.
Function 8 had earlier argued that the repeated use of the term “illegal strike” amounted to prejudging the ongoing case regarding the four bus drivers and “can only be calculated to influence the decision of the judge/s”.
“If we are a first-world nation and believe in the rule of law, we must ensure that all accused persons receive a fair and just trial,” they said.
Function 8 is a group of Singaporeans, among whom is former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainee Teo Soh Lung, that campaigns for human rights causes, in particular the abolishment of the ISA.
Earlier this year, the group organised an event at Speakers' Corner to raise awareness and garner signatures for a petition calling for further scrutiny into Operation Spectrum, which occurred in 1987.
Late last month, more than 180 SMRT bus drivers from China were involved in a two-day strike at the Woodlands dormitories that housed the majority of them, protesting a disparity in wages between them and their Malaysian colleagues.
Four of them who allegedly instigated the strike were remanded and charged in court, while one more later pleaded guilty to charges of key involvement and is now serving a six-week jail sentence. The first four are now out on bail and their court case is ongoing.
Meanwhile, a further 29 drivers were dismissed and deported for their involvement in the strike, while another 150 were issued police warnings.
Days later, two Chinese construction workers staged a nine-hour protest atop two cranes at Jurong Port. They, too, were arrested and charged in court, but for criminal trespass, and have both claimed trial and are out on bail.
SMRT bus drivers' strike illegal: Tan Chuan-Jin
5th Chinese bus driver charged gets six weeks' jail