Daniel Yap works in the media industry and enjoys blogging on social and political issues. He is married with four children. He blogs also at: http://doulosyap.wordpress.com
The sweeping change of Singapore’s bus system to a government contracting model will “promote greater competition and efficiency among operators”, according to LTA.
According to a Channel NewsAsia report, Looi Teik Soon, director of policy at the LTA, said that “The contracting is merely to make sure that the operator, (or) whoever wins the contract to provide the service, is (providing services) at the most competitive cost — the kind of value that we’re getting out (from the) service that we want.”
If LTA goes by the two metrics we have heard most of so far – cost and service level (in terms of meeting a certain trip frequency), and doesn’t define, reward and penalise other more nuanced parameters, such as terms of rest, maximum shift length, commuter-centricity, safety, ability to communicate with the public and friendliness, then cheap-sourcing is a potential risk in this situation.
On one side, we have commuters who may care more about price than quality, or who are too demanding and will not pay good money for good service. Or who do not single out good service for praise.
On another, we have a Government that needs to manage the costs of operation and may not appreciate the nuanced distinction between good employees and bad employees on the ground.
We also have operators to whom “competitiveness” and “efficiency” mean cutting corners, and who, as profit-driven entities, may sacrifice long-term investment in quality for short-term survival against others who undercut the market, especially in the current scenario where public transport is not an attractive career choice. As much as commuters may clamour over bus frequency and fare hikes, these two things are not all there is to quality bus service.
To meet the government’s high service level expectations for frequency, operators will simply demand more from those in the equation with the weakest bargaining power – their drivers.
Unions will then need to intervene to prevent wages from turning into a lowest common denominator situation, where companies who are unable to differentiate their service (since everyone is judged on simple key performance indicators) become the breeding ground for underpaid, underperforming, disposable employees.
The risk for a loss of quality in public transport can be a very serious thing. South Korea’s Sewol incident, in which some 300 people died, was the end result of the cheapening of labour in the shipping industry, where short contracts, poor job prospects and poorly qualified workers led to the loss of life. Public buses, in a similar fashion, pose such a safety risk as well. If worker quality in this sector falls, then it is only a matter of time before more lives are lost on the roads.
In additional to strong union representation and driver bargaining power, there needs to be a detailed framework for differentiated skillsets of transport workers, including tiered advancement in various skill areas.
For example, drivers should also have a significant portion of their pay package and promotion prospects judged based on good service, helpfulness to commuters, multilingual communication, safety, well-restedness (personal discipline), and discipline on the roads.
Commuters need to appreciate and actively give feedback on drivers and operators who are doing well, as well as those who do poorly in easily overlooked aspects of public transport operations.
Government needs to seriously consider this feedback and actively seek it out so that it can reward and penalize operators appropriately and grant licenses only to operators who meet high standards of service, not just those who cut corners in the short term to save a buck or two for the current account.
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