Migrant Bus Drivers Bailed after Singapore Strike

By Heather Tan, Migrant Workers 7 December 2012

SINGAPORE—Four Chinese immigrant bus drivers accused of inciting the city-state’s first labor strike in 26 years have been granted bail in a case that highlighted growing social friction caused by an influx of foreign labor.

A fifth Chinese driver has already been sentenced to six weeks in prison even though prosecutors said he was not an instigator of the strike, which was called to demand equitable pay.

Walking off the job in protest is almost unheard of in Singapore, and the swift prosecution following the Nov. 26-27 strike was a clear sign that the government of this strictly-enforced country will not brook any disobedience from its work force.

Three of the men who appeared in court on Thursday were allowed a bail of 10,000 Singapore dollars (US $8,200). A fourth driver, He Jun Liang, who faces an additional charge of making an online post in Mandarin, was given a bail of S$20,000 ($16,400).

It is not clear if they will be able to raise the money to get out of detention before their case resumes on Dec. 12.

A Chinese embassy official who was present at the hearing declined to comment on the cases. If found guilty, all four men face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000.

The four drivers and the fifth already in jail were among 171 Chinese bus drivers of a state transport company who went on strike in protest at being paid nearly a quarter less than their Malaysian colleagues. The labor action disrupted about 5 percent of the city-state’s bus services.

Singapore requires essential service workers to give 14 days’ notice of a strike. The last strike in the country was in 1986 by shipyard workers.

The government revoked the work permits of 29 other drivers and deported them to China. The remaining drivers in the group were issued warnings, and will be allowed to remain and work in Singapore.

Authorities say a police investigation found that the strike was premeditated and that the drivers were absent from work without reason. The bus company’s chief Desmond Kuek has said that the Chinese drivers’ salary was fair. He said the Chinese were paid less than the Malaysians because the company bore their expenses for transport, accommodation and utilities.

Singapore relies on hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia and Burma to work as maids, construction workers, waiters, garbage collectors and at other jobs deemed unappealing to many locals.

But the massive influx of foreigners has created much resentment among locals who see them as undisciplined and noisy. They also blame the foreigners for the overcrowding that has put pressure on infrastructure, and for raising housing prices because of bigger demand on limited supply.

The case has not caused any diplomatic rift between Singapore and China, a major trading partner. But activists in Hong Kong staged a protest outside the Singapore consulate on Wednesday.