China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow
1 April 2013
BEIJING — He Junling, the last of five Chinese bus drivers jailed and deported from Singapore for striking over pay and living conditions last year, arrived back in China on Sunday saying: “I have no regrets.”
The brief walkout in late November by scores of Chinese bus drivers shocked the tightly run Asian city-state, where strikes are rare (the last significant industrial action was more than 25 years ago, Reuters reported), but where advocates for workers’ rights say that migrant workers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, are often poorly treated.
“I don’t regret what happened. We heard that after we were arrested they improved conditions,” Mr. He, 32, said by telephone from his home in Qinyang city near Jiaozuo, in Henan Province, where he returned to his wife and 5-year-old daughter after receiving a seven week jail term in Singapore. (Four other drivers were sentenced to six weeks in jail; 29 were deported immediately after the strike; and about 150 others were given warnings, according to reports like this one in The Straits Times, a Singaporean newspaper.)
In December, Singapore’s minister of state for health and manpower, Amy Khor, said the strike was “a wake-up call” for companies to be more vigilant and put in place good management practices, Reuters reported.
The case highlighted an irony, said labor rights advocates: if such strikes are rare in Singapore, in China they are by now widespread, despite the Asian giant’s repressive image.
“It’s exactly what they would do in China if they had a contract dispute, if their employers refused to listen to them, if they were being paid less than other people,” said Geoff Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group.
“What’s changed now in China is workers are more willing to go out and stage protests,” said Mr. Crothall. “Now it’s a very common, almost widespread, default action for dispute resolution,” he said.
Singaporean law bars workers in essential services like public transportation from going on strike without giving 14 days’ notice, according to Reuters.
In a statement, Workfair, a Singapore-based nongovernmental labor rights organization that followed the strike closely, criticized the jail terms.
“A custodial sentence for taking part in a strike is severely disproportionate to the ‘offence’ that was committed, in light of the fact that the workers did not have union representation, had to endure poor living conditions and were discriminated against in basic wages and incentive payments,” the statement said.
“Much of the emphasis so far has been placed on punishing the ‘perpetrators’ of the ‘illegal strike,’ without sufficient analysis and reflection on the state of industrial relations in Singapore and the lack of protection for low waged workers,” the statement read.
Speaking on the telephone, Jolovan Wham of Workfair said the implications of the strike were “huge.”
“Its implications are very significant for Singapore because it’s a first time a strike has happened on this scale and was known to the public,” he said.
“The strike has brought to light some of the very big problems of the exploitation of migrant workers for a very long time,” said Mr. Wham.
In December, Human Rights Watch called for the charges against the drivers to be dropped and accused Singapore of “justifying nationality-based discrimination in pay and working conditions, and restricting foreign workers’ rights to form or lead a union to do something about it.”
Speaking of his time in jail, Mr. He said his treatment was “strict,” but “safe.”
“I don’t think Singapore is a bad place,” he said. “They do many things well. But compared to China, their human touch is very poor,” he said. “I’m very happy to be back home.”
The strike against the transportation company SMRT was motivated by low pay for Chinese drivers compared to Singaporeans and Malaysians, said Mr. He. He also said living conditions in dormitories were poor.
“We were living 10 to a room, people doing early shifts, late shifts, getting up a 3 a.m., or back at 1 a.m., everyone was waking everyone else up all the time. We didn’t sleep properly,” he said.
“Also, Singapore is hot,” he said, and when they washed it created commotion, waking roommates. There was no air conditioning in the rooms, he said, just two fans. “There was a garbage place outside and that attracted lots of rats and cockroaches,” he said.
In a Straits Times story in December, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said that the Manpower Ministry conducted regular checks on dormitories to ensure that they were up to par and there was no overcrowding.
Mr. Tan said, “But we do want to promote better employment practices, we want to make sure that good H.R. practices are in place.”
Contacted by telephone, Humphrey Sew of SMRT referred me to statements issued in late November that were available on the company Web site. One, dated Nov. 30, said that SMRT’s chief executive Desmond Kuek had visited the dormitories and noted that conditions could certainly be better. Mr. Sew said he’d get back with more.
The statement also said that “feedback had been given to the dormitory operators to step up the living conditions” for drivers. It quoted Mr. Kuek as saying there were “open channels of communications” with all drivers, adding that a new 24-hour hotline and an email help desk would be set up.
Mr. He said in our interview, “We wanted to talk to the management but they didn’t listen. No one paid any attention to us.” In some ways, things were better in China, he said.
“In China, if I have a problem, I can at least go to the government and petition them,” he said. “I can tell everyone about it and go to a government department and complain. But in Singapore, our complaints didn’t reach the government,” he said.
A request for comment by the Ministry of Manpower was pending at the time of writing, and when we hear back we’ll update this post.