Sunday, 2 December 2012

Labor strikes in Singapore: another psychological barrier falls

The fault line between locals and foreigners just got deeper. Almost 200 bus drivers from China working in Singapore recently protested working conditions and grievances over pay by striking from work for just over a day. Singapore has not seen such 'industrial action' for almost three decades. The action by Chinese bus drivers is significant in more ways than one.

For starters, the action highlights Singapore's dependence on low wage earning foreign labor. They are critical to maintaining Singapore's efficient and competitive economy operating smoothly. Additionally, the bus drivers strike signals to the government problems are afoot at both ends of the 'foreign talent' spectrum.
At the upper end, Singaporeans express concerns about recruiting highly skilled foreign talent. These well paid immigrants are routinely blamed for pushing up property prices, filling up subway trains and even taking away school seats from 'born and bred' Singaporeans.
At the other end of the wage spectrum, foreign low wage earners are blamed for crime and other forms of 'anti-social' behavior, including littering and riding bicycles on the pavement, besides also straining public transport infrastructure. To this list can now be added lack of respect for local law - the bus workers strike was illegal under Singapore law - and a sense of arrogance by bringing 'Chinese' ways of protest into Singapore.
Irrespective of the merits of worker claims of discrimination and the legality of the strike, one fact is undeniable: another feather from Singapore's 'aura' cap has been plucked. Singapore's reputation as a trouble free, well oiled machine is under siege from many fronts.
First came floods on Orchard Road; then murders and loan sharks; subsequently, regular breakdowns on the city's subway system. Now another 'halo' surrounding the 'Singapore Inc.' brand is at risk, i.e. an efficient and pliant labor market.

All eyes are on the government's handling of the strike. How hard will the judiciary be on the strikers, especially with the protest organizers and instigators? Will the work stoppage result in quiet, albeit delayed, concessions to bus drivers? Will revisions to existing methods of managing labor relations be implemented to make the process more responsive to changing conditions?
The strike has exposed one more 'foreign versus local' cleavage. If a clear message is not sent to illegal strikers, there is a real danger the strikes will spread to other sectors, not only among Chinese but other foreign workers. Subsequently, work disruptions will join the growing list of 'novelties' to which today's Singaporeans must adjust. The list already includes train delays, floods, litter, crime and even riding bicycles on the pavement.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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