Of apples and oranges

A very interesting article was recently published by the Chinese Labour Bulletin. The article goes back to the Chinese SMRT bus drivers’ strike and analyses the outcome from the drivers’ point of view.

Only what’s striking (no pun intended) is not so much the unfolding of the events, but the many inaccuracies that permeate throughout the analysis.

Here are some quotes that stood out like a sore thumb for me:

Chinese migrant workers have a very tenuous existence in Singapore. They are entirely dependent on the whim of their employer who can cancel their employment visa with virtual impunity at any time. Moreover, the authorities can place anyone they see as a trouble maker on an official blacklist, denying them future employment in the city state.”

This is true. Singapore is famous for its strict application of guidelines and regulations, and foreign workers are no exception. We are aware of our need for a varied and specialised workforce, but we’re also aware of the inherent dangers of just letting people come here to do as they please.

People know this when they apply for jobs here, and that goes for workers of ALL levels and all sectors; bankers, teachers, journalists, construction workers, and bus drivers all know what Singapore is like before landing here.

The problem is that the article seems to imply that only Chinese workers are working here under strict regulations, as if they were particularly targeted by a set of discriminating practices.

As Chinese nationals, they were specifically excluded from the company’s wage adjustment mechanism that applied to other drivers.”

This grave accusation remains to be proven. I can’t pretend to know the inner working of all Singapore companies, but I can safely bet that there are thorough and objective mechanisms put in place to make sure the most deserving, talented, or performing employees get the advancement they deserve.

Call me naïve, but I sincerely believe in our brand of meritocracy.

Like many migrant workers in Singapore, their employment contract was in English and the drivers had to rely on a verbal translation into Chinese.”

This could be just me, but if I decided to go abroad for a job, leaving friends, family, and motherland behind for a chance at better opportunities, I’d make sure I speak enough of the local language to at least understand the legal documents I’m signing.

Coming to work in a predominantly English-speaking country without being able to understand the conditions seems to me absurd, and can in no way be SMRT’s or even Singaporeans’ fault.

Just imagine if I moved to Germany or France without speaking their languages, signed life-changing documents without understanding them, and then complained when the conditions I signed up for weren’t what I expected?

Even my friends and family would tell me it was my own fault!

Jiang’s employment agency in China had painted a picture of clean and comfortable dormitories. The reality was very different.”

Again, if the SMRT drivers were deceived by their agency in China, I don’t see how SMRT or Singapore are at fault.

The only culprit here is the agency in China who should have been more transparent instead of pocketing people’s fees knowing full well they’d be disappointed upon arrival.

In such a scenario the drivers would have been able to make a truly informed decision.

The meeting failed to resolve the strike and merely highlighted the lack of effective channels of communication prior to the strike, and in particular the failure of the Singaporean trade union to represent the Chinese bus drivers.”

I wasn’t present in the meetings and I didn’t observe any of the discussions that transpired. But I’ve been in many negotiations between employers, disgruntled workers, and trade union representatives, and I can assure you that a single meeting is rarely enough to resolve complex and long-standing conflicts.

Such things take time and shouldn’t be rushed, no matter how pressing the complaints.

“Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) is state-controlled body that does not see its job as representing the interests of workers, and especially not migrant workers.”

False. This writer obviously doesn’t know how efficient our tripartite system is.

I urge him/her to read many of our labour-related articles to get a better sense of all the positive outcomes that come from structured and civilised discussions.

Migrant worker rights will always be subordinated to the national interest.”

True. And it’s the same in every single country in the world that has ever – or ever will – receive foreign workers.

If I were to move to China to get a chance at bettering my life I would be very surprised to find that my interests go before those of any national, regardless of race, level of education, type of industry, or any other criteria.

There are at least one million foreign workers in Singapore, making up about one third of the total workforce. They are primarily employed in construction, transport, manufacturing and services, in other words the low-paid and dangerous jobs Singaporean citizens are reluctant to do. These are precisely the jobs that require dedicated and effective trade union representation but at present they are the positions least well served by the NTUC.”

See above.

To be fair, the writer does point out some very real weaknesses within our system: the drivers’ dismal living conditions, the fragmented discussions with SMRT’s management, and the xenophobic witch-hunt which took place in forums and comments sections, for instance.

But no one ever said we were perfect. As any other young nation, we are growing and we strive to learn from our mistakes.

That’s why articles such as the CLB’s and this very response are important to keep things moving forward instead of leaving things at a standstill.

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Najib A.

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