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Bus Strike Exposes Social Divides in Singapore

4:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(xcode via flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

A spontaneous strike in November, the first in 26 years, shook up the tight social order of Singapore. As with many aspects of this gleaming global trade hub, the labor action was an import, of sorts. The agitators were Chinese bus drivers protesting the transit company SMRT’s policy of paying Chinese migrants less than other workers. Though the action was relatively limited, with about 171 drivers refusing to work, it did break the law and disrupted the city-state’s usual ultra-efficiency for two days.

In late February, a Singaporean court sentenced four strike leaders to jail for up to seven weeks, despite widespread criticism of the charges from human rights activists. Authorities had already sent a strong warning message by levying heavy fines on some participants and deporting 29 back to China.

For decades, Singapore has been an emblem of the post-colonial Pacific dream, boasting a robust economy, relatively wealthy citizens and a well-oiled bureaucracy. But the unrest among the migrant Chinese drivers, who make up nearly a quarter of SMRT’s total workforce of 2,000 drivers and earn significantly less than their coworkers, underscores the divide between the migrants, who comprise about 35 percent of the workforce, and the “native” Singaporeans, many of whom are uncomfortable with the growing reliance on foreign labor. Read the rest of this entry →

Migrants Struggle in the Shadows of Asia’s Rising Tide of Inequality

2:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrants in Libya (Photo: UN)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The much-hyped “emerging economies” of Asia are supposed to be moving up on the world stage, but the labor migration they’ve set in motion has put the poorest workers on a downward spiral. Wherever migrants clamor for jobs in “more developed” countries, social crisis often follows.

A recent protest in Singapore suggests that inequality and unrest simmer even in Asia’s most prosperous enclaves. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bangladeshi construction workers organized an eight-hour sit-in to demand justice for an all-but-invisible workforce:

The low-wage migrant workers, who, like the much of the city-state’s construction force are from Bangladesh, gathered in a vacant field near their dormitories Monday in Tampines, a part of east Singapore. They were protesting against their employers, Singapore-based Sunway Concrete Products Pte. Ltd and Techcom Construction & Trading Pte. Ltd. Both companies are contracted by the government Housing Development Board to build homes across the island.

The workers said their employers had not paid their salaries for four months, since November last year, despite repeated requests for payment. Initial investigations carried out by officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower confirmed that they had not been paid.

The workers also took issue with the food they were being served, which they said was inedible though paid from their own salaries, which are between S$2 – 2.50 (US$1.60 – $2) an hour, according to the workers.

Immigrants being cheated out of wages is a common story everywhere in the world (the U.S. included, of course), and lawmakers have little incentive to clamp down on unscrupulous employers when their economic growth figures are at stake. But Singapore might be more pressured to respond in this case because the labor dispute involves government contractors. Read the rest of this entry →