Rights group chides Singapore over Chinese bus drivers

SINGAPORE Thu Dec 6, 2012 3:14am EST

1 of 4. A labour union representative chants slogans while carrying a sign with a portrait of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a protest outside the Singapore Consulate in Hong Kong December 5, 2012. The group demanded for the release of a Chinese immigrant bus driver being sentenced to jail in Singapore after a protest in late November. The sign reads, 'Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Release striking bus driver! Withdraw charges! Stop deporting! Protect workers rights to protest!'

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch decried Singapore's prosecution of mainland Chinese bus drivers behind the first major strike in the wealthy city-state since 1986, calling on Thursday for the charges to be dropped and discrimination to be ended.

Four Chinese men, charged with inciting a two-day walkout by dozens of their colleagues last week, asked for lawyers on Thursday in a case that highlights tensions over immigration in Singapore and the treatment of foreign workers.

A fifth Chinese driver, who pleaded guilty and was not represented by a lawyer, was sentenced to six weeks in jail on Monday. Singapore, a tightly regulated financial center with no minimum wage, deported 29 others to China on Sunday.

"Singapore defies basic labor rights by criminalizing migrant workers for a work stoppage," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"It then adds insult to injury by 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."

The Ministry of Manpower did not respond to a request for comment.

The Chinese drivers staged their walkout over living conditions and disparities in pay with their Singaporean and Malaysian peers.

Workers in essential services in Singapore are barred from striking without giving 14 days' notice and the government deters any kind of labor unrest that might hurt investment.

Singaporeans, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, were firmly in support of punishment for the workers but also blamed the bus company, a poll showed.

The four drivers appeared in court on Thursday but their case was adjourned until Wednesday. Bail was set at S$10,000 ($8,200) for three of them and at S$20,000 for one man who faces an extra charge.

They face a maximum fine of S$2,000 and/or a sentence of up to a year in prison. The other drivers who took part in the strike would get police warnings but be allowed to stay and work in Singapore, the government said last week.

Singapore's long-ruling government, hit by its worst election result last year, is trying to defuse public anger over soaring costs and an influx of immigrants. At the same time, the construction, hospitality and transport sectors demand foreign workers because many Singaporeans do not want those jobs.

"Sadly, the government is drawing the wrong conclusion from the bus drivers' strike." Robertson of Human Rights Watch said.

"Rather than prosecuting migrant workers who speak up, the government should ensure that all workers have equal rights."

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.

In another labor protest, two Chinese workers climbed to the top of a construction crane on Thursday and refused to come down. The Straits Times newspaper said they were due to return to China but were owed one month's pay.

($1 = 1.2184 Singapore dollars)

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Comments (2)
While we empathize with the plight of the jailed drivers, they broke the law and must face the consequence.

Dec 06, 2012 2:22pm EST  --  Report as abuse
Rebaczonok wrote:
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch is again lambasting Singapore over alleged human rights abuses. Perhaps he is unaware that industrial action of the type recently perpetrated by the Chinese bus drivers is strictly against Singapore law. If he is in fact aware of this, then is he suggesting that the nation’s law be broken, and that essential services be disrupted as a result?

Certainly Minister Amy Khor was right to say that the strike was a ‘wake-up call’ to companies to implement good management practices, and many of us empathise with the drivers’ aspirations to better their lot during their term of employ here. Instigating illegal strikes, however, is not the way to go about achieving this. It must also be added that strikes run very much contrary to the local work culture and that disputes are settled non-confrontationally.

On another note, the characterisation of the Singapore government as having been ‘hit by is worst election result last year’, is misleading. The ruling People’s Action Party enjoyed a solid 60% victory, something which in any other democracy would be considered a landslide by today’s standards, and which in any event constitutes a mandate. The use of words like ‘hit’ and ‘worst’ conjure up images of an angry populace that has lashed out at an overbearing government, and that kind of characterisation is both untrue and unfair. I would have expected more objective reporting than that.

Dec 09, 2012 9:06pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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