Monday, December 03, 2012

The Strike and an Industrial Relations' Awakening

This strike is historical. The 5 bus drivers who were charged for an illegal strike and 29 other colleagues who were repatriated did not expect they would be penalised for voicing their dissatisfaction and going on a "strike". A word that was not uttered in the media in the first day, as if by not calling it a strike it would make it disappear and deny its existence,

Calling a Strike a Strike and the Consequences

However, calling it a "strike" would had implications on insurance claims if any, read AXA's argument of  "collision" vs "accident" in the Ferrari case, and the type of legal action against those who went on strike. As it turned out, once it was sealed as an illegal strike since the workers did not give their employer 14 days notice, those who went on strike had their legal fate sealed. It was not malingering, it was a strike.

The 14-days notice is a fair brinkmanship warning and gradual escalation of the stakes before workers down tools, or in this case, hands of the wheel and foot off the pedals. SMRT management would have started serious negotiations or called the drivers' bluff. As those SMRT bus drivers were not union members as reported, it was still unlikely that SMRT would have taken any strike threat seriously anyway. The SMRT bus drivers painted themselves into a corner whether their grounds for complaints were valid or not because their action was illegal and they were not part of a union.

Singaporean First is a Laudable Policy

In the end, SMRT adopted a Singaporean First employment practice by paying locals more and that is too be lauded. Putting locals first before others is not exploitation. Should foreigners be paid just as much? The general sentiment from the public about foreigners in recent times is that they should not, so SMRT should not be blamed for its profit-centric-nationalistic policy mix and should continue this salary discrimination as long as their SMRT foreign workers rely on SMRT quarters and other facilities as part of their contract. If these disgruntled workers don't like it they can quit, not strike.

A Sharing of Blame - Drivers and SMRT

Were the SMRT bus drivers' concerns e.g. living conditions, valid? SMRT by their without prejudice admission that they should have engaged their bus drivers more and earlier, says plenty. SMRT is not without culpability in the strike and they were just as responsible, albeit indirectly, in the bus service disruptions on 26th November. The extent of the route disruption was not divulged by SMRT but that only 29 were deported, it meant that 29 was a number SMRT was comfortable with deporting and anymore would be severe disruption of bus services. Whether SMRT was more culpable than the bus drivers - legally no, contractually no, ethically maybe depending if you are more a xenophobe or a bystander with no stake in SMRT shares. Nonetheless, there should be zero tolerance on illegal strikes like this SMRT strike as this is a bad signal to investors and businesses.

Deterring Strikes (and Lockouts)

As Singapore continues to need foreigners in the various service and industrial sectors, and as the first strike was struck last week, the industrial relations map of Singapore is changing. There have been many complaints of exploitation by construction companies of its foreign workforce and cases of PRC workers protesting outside MOM, as they are not unionised, are not rare. News of this feat by the SMRT bus drivers and regardless that some were rightly arrested and deported, would have settled into the psyche of foreign workers here. The seeds of strike as a disruptive bargaining tool and even its antithesis, a lockout, are being sown unless the authorities can send a strong enough deterrence to both workers and employers to behave. LTA and the court would have to be tough on both SMRT and the 5 arrested if they want to show that illegal strikes are not tolerated.


The said...

/// The SMRT bus drivers painted themselves into a corner whether their grounds for complaints were valid or not because their action was illegal and they were not part of a union.///

Given the pro-employer bias of Singapore's policy, it will be equally futile if the workers go along the legal route. Remember the last intended SIA strike? They went the legal route and what happened? Those who surfaced were coralled and singled out for special treatment. One PR from Malaysia had his PR revoked and family had to relocate.

Imagine if the SMRT PRC workers had follow the letter of the law. This is what is likely to happen - the ringleaders will be singled out and repatriated and the rest smacked down.

Anonymous said...

I think having higher wages for Singaporeans vis-a-vis foreigners will be disastrous for Singapore workers unless there is a law/directive to cap the percentage of foreign workers in a particular sector. As male citizens need to undergo reservist training and/or RT which is disruptive to work flow, higher wages will inevitably results in Singapore workers being replaced by cheaper foreign workers.

Anonymous said...

A balanced posting. The PRC drivers are not as innocent as they make themselves to be - they can quit, they should have joined a union. If they want to strike, they must face the music.

SMRT also not as innocent as they make themselves to be. They unwittingly provoked the strike. They should also be given some penalty.