At around 3.45 pm this past Saturday, He Jun Ling left Singapore on a plane bound for China. He had just finished a seven-week sentence* at Changi Prison – punishment for his role in what authorities call an “illegal strike” at transport operator, SMRT.
He’s departure followed that of his colleagues Gao Yueqiang, Wang Xianjie and Liu Xiang Ying. The three men received slightly lighter punishments – six weeks each in jail – for helping to instigate the industrial action that hit SMRT last November. With the four ringleaders back in China, the saga appears to have drawn to a close. But questions continue to swirl.
SMRT is, in the words of the Straits Times, a “beleaguered company”. It issued a profit warning recently, commuters regularly complain about unscheduled disruptions to train services and its Human Resource Department appears to be in need of a good shake-up.
Long before the strikes in November, the company’s Chinese bus drivers were already expressing dissatisfaction over issues ranging from pay to bonuses to living arrangements. An attempt was made to seek redress at the Ministry of Manpower in 2010, but for many, the experience only seemed to reinforce the perception that there was no use turning to the government for help (more on this later).
The drivers also feared reprisals if they spoke up. Asked for proof that management punished those who complained, many pointed to a strange incident in 2008. It’s a story that’s still circulating among the drivers, even today. They call it, “The one about the guy who was bitten by bedbugs”.
Tucked inside a folder on Hu Xiuwen’s computer is a set of photographs taken when he was in Singapore. In one, he’s sitting behind the wheel of an SMRT bus. In another, he’s standing with a group of men in front of what is presumable the same bus. In another, he appears to be boarding the bus. In all the pictures, there’s a big smile on his face.
“They told me to pose for publicity photos for recruitment campaigns in China,” Hu explained over tea at his flat on the outskirts of the port city of Qingdao. “I was one of the better drivers, so they picked me.”
Despite the smiles, Hu wasn’t happy at SMRT. He had spent RMB36,000 (S$7200) to secure a job his agent said would come with all sorts of benefits – quality accommodation, annual bonuses and the opportunity to work at what he believed was a ‘world-class company’. Hu said he was cheated.
“There was a huge difference [between what the agent promised me and what the company gave us]. In some ways, I felt as if they had lied to us.”
An early indication of what was to come occurred when Hu was told to sign a contract in English – a language he barely understood. This was just before his scheduled departure for Singapore. He had already paid his agent in full.
“If you don’t sign, you don’t get to fly. You’ll also lose the agent’s fee.” Hu said.
And so he signed and flew to Singapore. Hu never received a copy of the contract. His agent told him the terms included among other things, a 13th-month bonus and a flight allowance. In Singapore, Hu quickly learnt that this was not the case. He was also uneasy when SMRT confiscated his passport.
Despite his misgivings, Hu decided not to kick up a fuss. He had spent a lot of money getting to Singapore. It was not in his interest to jeopardise relations with his employer.
Then one day, Hu started to itch. The company had just moved him into new quarters – a place infested with bed bugs. Red welts appeared all over his body. Scratching them resulted in sores and scabs. Sleep became a challenge.
“My body was full of bites and I would scratch my bites and drive at the same time.”
Hu said his colleague, Lin Xiaojie, went to lodge a complaint with a manager, but returned to their room in tears. More sleepless nights followed. Hu then decided to speak to his superiors himself.
SMRT declined to comment on Hu’s case, but according to the former driver, things got a little heated when he paid management a visit. Voices were raised and the manager banged the table a few times. Hu called a timeout in a bid to calm the situation. Still, he was suspended from his job and fired a few days later. SMRT hired a repatriation company to oversee his departure.
“They acted like gangsters,” Hu said.
He was told to sign documents, which once again, he did not understand. A request to go to the Ministry of Manpower was rejected. The repatriation company confined Hu to a room with sealed windows and very little light. He remained in there for six hours, before boarding a plane bound for China.
Hu spent barely 10 months in Singapore. He was not particularly outgoing or extremely sociable. But more than four years after his sacking, many at his old company still know his name. For former driver Qiu Fawen, Hu’s experience served as a cautionary tale: it reminded him and his colleagues that employees hoping to approach SMRT with their problems should tread with care.
“They are not interested in feedback. Complain and they will send you home.” Qiu said.
Still, early batches of recruits attempted to bridge the gap between what their agents promised back in China, and what they were told they would get after arriving in Singapore. Wang and Liu confirmed that like Hu, many in their cohort were not given copies of their contracts. The documents were also drafted in English, which the men did not understand. There was anger and confusion and meetings were called to iron things out.
“SMRT’s Human Resource Department said that yes, we [Chinese bus drivers] will have this bonus, but only after two years,” recalled Liu. “This was only for Chinese bus drivers. Their reasoning was that if they gave the money to us now, we would spend it, so they kept it for us first.”
In separate interviews, Qiu and Wang confirmed Liu’s account.
“We thought it was an acceptable arrangement,” said Qiu, “but SMRT never kept their promise.”
In 2010, the drivers sent a petition to the MOM. They expressed dissatisfaction over pay and bonuses, inadequate housing and the fact that they were not allowed to hold on to their own passports.
In Parliament recently, Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-jin acknowledged that the drivers did indeed approach MOM (then under the charge of Gan Kim Yong) for help and that the Ministry did mediate. According to Tan: “Those issues relating to potential breaches of statutory obligations have been investigated and dealt with by MOM, while issues not related to statutory obligations have been surfaced by my colleagues in MOM to SMRT’s most senior management level.”
However, the Acting Minister also noted in the same session that “the Government should be careful about interfering in private contractual arrangements which are entered into willingly by both parties and which do not breach any statutory requirements”. (read the Acting Minister’s full response to questions on the SMRT strike here)
For the drivers, the outcome of the mediation proved bitterly disappointing.
“Only the passport issue was resolved,” said Qiu. “SMRT returned our passports, but the company did not address our other complaints.”
And so the anger continued to simmer and build. Many drivers felt they had no one to turn to. Hu’s experience told them they should refrain from speaking up.
“We also thought it would be useless to go to MOM,” said Gao, who joined SMRT in 2011. “The drivers who came before me tried and got nowhere.”
In June last year, SMRT announced that it was switching from a five to a six-day work week. It also changed the way in which allowances and other benefits were given out. For outsiders, the moves seemed inconsequential. But many Chinese drivers saw them as a means to curtail their pay. Most relied on overtime work and shift allowances to boost their monthly earnings. The changes, they said, would mean less income each month. The Chinese drivers were not alone. Even local and Malaysian drivers said they were unhappy.
And then in October, notices went up in SMRT depots across the island announcing pay increments for Singaporean and Malaysian drivers. Mainland Chinese though were told in no uncertain terms that they were excluded from the exercise.
“It was very insulting,” said Gao. “They could have phrased it differently.”
In the weeks that followed, the announcement was virtually all the Chinese drivers could talk about. It became the focus of conversations after work and at lunch breaks. Underlying the frustration was an acute sense of injustice. Chinese drivers felt as if they were being treated as second-class employees by SMRT. There was some truth to this – despite doing the same work, their salaries were lower than their Singaporean and Malaysian counterparts.
Online, a chatgroup set up by drivers from Mainland China buzzed with suggestions on what exactly needed to be done to remedy the ‘injustice’. The discussion generated nearly 200 pages of messages .
SMRT, for its part, maintains that the drivers could and should have approached management with their complaints. In response to questions sent via email, spokesperson Ang Siew Tin wrote:
“Please be assured that we offer our staff various channels through which they can communicate with management and these channels were also made known to all our Bus Captains from China. It was unfortunate that a group of them chose not to voice their grievances through these official channels available to them.”
Even if these channels of communication were indeed open, workers like Liu, Wang, Gao and He clearly didn’t believe they were effective. On the 26th of November the unthinkable happened. Singapore’s mainstream media reported that some 200 Chinese drivers at SMRT refused to go to work. The euphemism caused much amusement in some quarters. To most observers, it was clear they had gone on strike – Singapore’s first in 26 years.
* Despite being sentenced to seven weeks in prison, He was released after five weeks. Wang, Liu and Gao were released after four weeks, presumably for good behavior.