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 →