Close to 200 Chinese bus drivers working with Singapore public transport operator SMRT took medical leave at the same time on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27.
The Ministry of Manpower said the action was illegal and five workers were charged, while 29 others had their work permits cancelled before being deported to China.
It is known that Singapore puts in place requirements that make it very difficult to have a strike legally, and imposes severe punishments for those participating in an illegal strike, especially in essential services sectors like transport, water and electricity.
So even if the drivers were not aware of the details of the law, they must have expected their actions to be illegal. Others trying to persuade them after they started the action may be aware of the consequences, too.
Then why did they go on strike anyway?
Some of the drivers working with the company told Xinhua on condition of anonymity that it all started with a change from five work days to six work days for all the workers earlier this year, which meant that the workers will get less in wages for overtime work.
One of the drivers said he could earn only around 1,700 Singapore dollars (1,393 U.S. dollars) a month now, compared with close to 2,000 U.S. dollars earlier.
Singaporean and Malaysian drivers in the city state were not happy with the change and sought help from the union. So the company agreed to raise the salaries for the drivers.
However, the Chinese workers received a pay rise of only 75 Singapore dollars, while the company’s Malaysian drivers received pay rises of 275 Singapore dollars, in addition to a difference in bonus.
Even after the pay rise, the Chinese drivers did not earn as much as they did before the change to six workdays.
The drivers said they were also not happy with the poor conditions of the dormitory and the way a written notice was phrased. The notice used the words "excluding Chinese service leaders" in brackets in several places.
The drivers said eight to ten drivers typically live in the same room even though they work on different shifts, including those starting in the early morning and those starting in the afternoon. The first drivers often go to work as early as around 4: 00 a.m, while others come back as late as 1:00 a.m. They have to accept whatever shifts they are assigned to.
Only about ten percent of the Chinese drivers at the company were represented by labor unions. Few dare to stand for their rights in the event of a labor dispute as they fear that the leaders may be punished.