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Oral Answer by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Manpower & Senior Minister of State, National Development, to Parliamentary Question related to the SMRT Case

Notice Paper No. 451 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 900 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr R Dhinakaran

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower how can the Government ensure that employers of foreign workers in the essential services do enough to inform their foreign employees of the different set of rules and regulations and the law governing the nature of their employment.

Notice Paper No. 455 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 905 For Oral Answer

MP: Dr Lily Neo

To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) whether he can provide an assessment for the unhappiness of the Chinese bus drivers who were responsible for the recent illegal strike and if this situation could have been better managed; and (b) does the Ministry have in place a safety-valve mechanism to step in before relations breakdown to the point of disrupting vital public transport services.

Notice Paper No. 459 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 909 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Arthur Fong

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower in light of the illegal strikes by the SMRT Chinese drivers, what are the learning points to avoid such an occurrence again.

Notice Paper No. 459 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 910 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Arthur Fong

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) how can avenues to address grievances of foreign workers working in Singapore be better managed; and (b) whether the Ministry will consider allowing foreign workers to be unionized.

Notice Paper No. 461 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 916 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Liang Eng Hwa

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) what are the learning points from the recent illegal strike by SMRT bus drivers; (b) whether there are adequate mechanisms to handle the grievances of non-unionised low-wage workers; and (c) whether companies that hire large number of foreign workers are equipped to manage workers of different nationalities and backgrounds.

Notice Paper No. 463 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 917 For Oral Answer

MP: Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) whether the recent illegal strike by SMRT bus drivers is a wake-up call for tripartism; (b) what lessons can be drawn to ensure that low-wage workers, including foreign workers, will be treated fairly by employers and their grievances heard; and (c) how does the Ministry ensure that employers will not exploit lowly-educated foreign workers, particularly non-unionised ones.

Notice Paper No. 467 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 924 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Cedric Foo Chee Keng

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower in view of the recent SMRT bus drivers' work stoppages, how can Singapore do better to maintain its excellent industrial relations track record especially for essential services.

Notice Paper No. 472 Of 2012 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 932 For Oral Answer

MP: Ms Mary Liew

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower in light of the recent strike by SMRT workers (a) what can be done to strengthen tripartism and ensure that it continues to be Singapore's comparative advantage; and (b) given that bipartism is a pre-requisite for strong tripartism, what more can be done to get employers to recognise and support unions at the workplace.

Notice Paper No. 03 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 940 For Oral Answer

MP: Asst Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) what is the rationale for detaining the 29 SMRT bus drivers prior to their deportation in a prison facility when they have not been charged with any offence; and (b) what is being done to ensure that the employment terms and work conditions are adequately safeguarded for persons working in the essential services as specified in the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

Notice Paper No. 04 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 946 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Laurence Lien

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower whether the Ministry will mandate improvements in the work conditions of foreign workers and make Singapore a more competitive destination for such workers from the region to come to Singapore

Notice Paper No. 04 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 948 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Yee Jenn Jong

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) when SMRT first became aware of the pay and housing grievances of its foreign bus drivers; (b) when the Ministry first became aware of the grievances; (c) what actions were taken by the Ministry since the grievances were known; and (d) what plans the Ministry has for improving industrial relationship between foreign workers and employers.

Notice Paper No. 05 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 956 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Png Eng Huat

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) what is the total number of non-Singaporeans employed in the essential services listed in the First Schedule of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (Chapter 67); (b) what are the top five essential services that hire the most non-Singaporeans; and (c) what is the number and percentage of non-Singaporeans in each of the top five essential services.

Notice Paper No. 06 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 959 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Zaqy Mohamad

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower with regard to the Ministry's investigation of the recent illegal industrial strikes (a) did the workers have adequate access to the Ministry or other related agencies to air their grievances; (b) what is the Ministry's assessment of the channels available to foreign workers to seek redress on their work conditions; (c) whether the Ministry will consider allowing relevant agencies, NGOs and unions to set up a representative branch office or conduct regular dormitory visits to improve accessibility and prevent foreign worker abuse by employers or exploitation by third parties; and (d) what more can be done to prevent the exploitation of foreign workers by employers.

Notice Paper No. 06 Of 2013 for the sitting on 4 Feb 2013 Question No. 962 For Oral Answer

MP: Mr Png Eng Huat

To ask the Acting Minister for Manpower (a) what role did the Chinese Embassy play in the resolution of the SMRT strike by Chinese bus drivers on 26 November 2012; and (b) whether there were other demands made by these bus drivers apart from salary and living conditions that were made known to the Ministry via the Chinese Embassy.



  1. Mdm Speaker, if I may take the next 14 questions together? I would like to thank my fellow Members of this House for the many questions, but in particular, for agreeing to defer your questions to this day. Given the importance of this topic, it was appropriate for us to air this, to address this publicly, and to have a proper Question and Answer following this response.

    Causes of Incident
  2. Let me start by addressing Dr Lily Neo, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and A/P Eugene Tan’s queries on the causes and the actions taken by the Government with regard to the illegal strike by the SMRT bus drivers.
  3. I am aware that there are many reasons offered in the various media sources about the root causes of the workers’ grievances. Indeed, there have been employment issues raised with MOM on SMRT in the past. In fact, in 2010, a number of these were raised. Those issues relating to potential breaches of statutory obligations have been investigated and dealt with by MOM, while issues not related to statutory obligations have been surfaced by my colleagues in MOM to SMRT’s most senior management level. All these were dealt with prior to the strike.
  4. When MOM officers spoke with the PRC bus drivers on 26 November when they participated in the strike, new issues were revealed and their unhappiness boiled down to three core issues. Firstly, differential salary and increments relative to the Malaysian bus drivers. Secondly, a SMRT internal circular which explicitly excluded PRC bus drivers from a recent salary adjustment exercise and thirdly, perceived unsatisfactory accommodation conditions.
  5. As with most other developed countries, our labour laws would stipulate the basic employment standards, and the Government’s role is to ensure that these basic employment standards are upheld. It is neither possible nor desirable to prescribe every good management practice under these laws.
  6. The first two grievances raised by the PRC bus drivers were in fact issues which had nothing to do with employment standards or to do with the law. Rather, they were contractual issues to do with the terms and conditions of their employment. Both employers and employees share a joint responsibility to resolve such cases amicably; and the Government should be careful about interfering in private contractual arrangements which are entered into willingly by both parties and which do not breach any statutory requirements. I will expand on this later.
  7. The third issue alleged a potential breach of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations that require employers to ensure that their foreign employees have acceptable accommodation. Following feedback from the workers, MOM promptly sent officers to check on the state of the accommodation. We found no infringements committed by the dormitory operator such as an unacceptable level of overcrowding. Although the general housekeeping conditions of the rooms the PRC drivers occupied were below par, it should be stressed that the workers are responsible for the general upkeep of their own rooms as part of the rental agreement with the dormitory.
  8. To put things in proper perspective, with a large and diverse workforce, employment disputes are not uncommon in Singapore. In fact, employment disputes are not uncommon among Singaporean workers as well, together with their employers. I think all of us will have experienced that, whether in the capacity as employees, or as employers. By and large, these are settled amicably between employer and employee through grievance handling mechanisms, and sometimes with MOM’s assistance as well, who stepped in to mediate in these issues.
  9. But let me be clear about this. Whatever the workers’ grievances were, we cannot condone workers in this instance, or any other, taking matters into their own hands and breaking the law. If this happens, they will be dealt with according to the law and in the case of the SMRT strike, 29 were sternly warned by the Police for participating in the strike illegally. They were then detained in an immigration depot prior to their repatriation in order to make the necessary arrangements for them to be repatriated from Singapore, and to mitigate the risk of further law and order issues arising from the cancellation of their work passes. Another five persons have been charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. Of the five, one has been convicted for participating in the illegal strike. The court proceedings for the other four are on-going. The four drivers have just lodged fresh complaints against SMRT on 11 January, and we are looking into these complaints.
  10. Singapore expects our citizens working in foreign countries to abide by the laws of their host countries. Similarly, we expect all foreign nationals working in Singapore to do the same.

    Lessons Learnt
  11. Mr Arthur Fong, Ms Irene Ng and Mr Liang Eng Hwa also asked about learning points arising from this particular incident. I would note three broad lessons:
    1. Firstly, the importance of having a proper grievance handling system, and better workplace diversity management in companies;
    2. Secondly, there is a need for better protection of and educational outreach to vulnerable workers; and
    3. Thirdly, the continuing importance of tripartism amidst a changing workforce profile.
    Employee Grievance Management Systems in Companies and Government's Role
  12. Let me address these in turn, starting from the first which has been raised by Dr Lily Neo, Mr Arthur Fong, Mr Liang Eng Hwa and Ms Irene Ng.
  13. There are many reasons why employment-related grievances may arise in workplaces. As I mentioned earlier, it is really not uncommon for a workforce of three million. Some relate to breaches of employers’ statutory obligations, while others relate to contractual disputes. Yet others relate to non-contractual issues such as disagreements over the level of employment benefits or the conditions of work. It is not always very clear whether the disagreements arise from unacceptable employment conditions or from the unreasonable demands of the workers themselves. I think we often hear of stories from both sides of the coin.
  14. Regardless of their nature, if these grievances are not properly addressed and are allowed to fester, it could eventually lead to undesirable consequences, as in the case of the SMRT incident.
  15. Fundamentally, it is the employer who bears the primary responsibility to address employee grievances. Employers are the ones who can take immediate remedial actions to address valid grievances as and when they arise. And if there are misunderstandings, it is also the employer who should try to communicate better to make sure that these misunderstandings are cleared up. As I mentioned earlier, and I think all of us would, I believe, agree, that it is really not practical or desirable for the Government to step in and to prescribe by law, all the different good management practices which we expect companies to adopt.
  16. It is in employers’ self-interest to implement effective communication and grievance management systems. These can, in turn, and they will, bring about other benefits such as better employee engagement and improved productivity.
  17. This is also a view shared strongly by our Tripartite Partners. Both employers and unions believe that open and direct communication between employer and employee is really the key to harmonious industrial relations. In the case of unionised companies, the unions would work with management to include grievance handling procedures in collective agreements.
  18. The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) recently released an advisory on employee grievance handling that strongly encouraged companies of all sizes to put in place such procedures or to review existing ones to ensure that they are practical and relevant. So, it is not good enough to just have grievance handling mechanisms. They must be able to work and the personnel responsible for them must be able to implement them, with the full spirit of it. I cannot stress enough the importance for all employers to give attention to this issue, particularly if they do not yet have such measures in place. This is important not just with foreign workers for the foreign labour force, but with our own Singaporean workforce as well.
  19. If there are employers who need help and advice, they can approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) which has been conducting workshops and has produced handbooks to educate and equip employers with the wherewithal to implement proper grievance management systems.
  20. I mentioned earlier that in the specific case of SMRT, the grievances by the PRC drivers arose because of the differential salary and increments relative to their Malaysian counterparts, as well as an internal circular which conveyed the decision to the PRC drivers in really, quite an insensitive way. My Ministry has looked into these issues in detail and let me now deal with each in turn.
  21. The Government’s basic philosophy is to allow remuneration to be set according to market principles. Employers are free to determine the salary they are willing to pay for a particular job. In the same vein, workers, whether local or foreign, are free to decide if the employment terms or offer suit their needs, and whether to accept or reject the employment offer. In our structurally tight labour market, employers who treat their workers fairly and in accordance to their abilities and competencies will have a competitive advantage in finding suitable workers to grow their businesses.
  22. On the issue of salary differentials, SMRT has explained that unlike Malaysians, the PRC drivers are not permanent staff. Moreover, they are provided transport and accommodation which have to be taken into account in their overall remuneration package.
  23. SMRT has also explained that the PRC workers are here on a two-year term contracts. These contracts do not provide for wage increments, and the workers were aware that they were not entitled to this increment when they signed on for the job.
  24. But I would say that SMRT really could have handled the matter better by ensuring that the company’s decisions were properly explained to and accepted by the workers. I call on SMRT’s top management to deal with these issues decisively. This has been conveyed to them and they have indicated that this is something they are taking on seriously and are addressing.
  25. Grievance handling procedures and communication channels cannot guarantee disputes are always resolved to the satisfaction of workers. As I mentioned earlier, it is often unclear as well, if the dispute arose from inadequate employment conditions or from unreasonable demands of workers. But it certainly helps to mitigate the risk of serious labour management breakdown when the means of communications are opened and there are such systems in place.
  26. Mr Zaqy Mohamad asked if the drivers had access to the Ministry. The answer is yes. Employees who suspect that their employers have breached their statutory obligations may approach MOM for assistance. As I have said, MOM’s role is to ensure that basic employment standards for all employees in Singapore are upheld. We will investigate such complaints and we do not just take the word of one side or one party. If proven to be true, we will not hesitate to take errant employers to task. For non-statutory employment disputes which are raised to MOM, we will facilitate where we can and where is appropriate, but ultimately the resolution lies between the employer and employee. It is not feasible or practical for MOM to step in on every single grievance that occurs in every single company.
  27. If for one reason or another, workers prefer not to come to MOM directly, they can also reach out to unions, or Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre (MWC), HealthServe and others for assistance in pursuing their grievances. Foreign workers can also approach their respective countries’ embassies to register their dissatisfaction and complaints, and thereafter, their embassies will raise it with us.
  28. MOM recognises the positive roles that unions play in representing the interests of their members and in stabilising labour management relations. Unions play a very important role in our landscape. Foreign Embassies also have regular engagement and a close working relationship with my Ministry. Mr Png Eng Huat asked about the role of the Chinese Embassy in the SMRT case. Throughout the incident, both MOM and MHA officers kept in close contact with Embassy officials and facilitated consular access to the affected Chinese bus drivers.
  29. MOM further recognises that NGOs can play a useful bridging role. We work closely with these organisations and support their efforts to ensure that workers are not exploited. In fact, at the working level, a lot of interactions take place between my officers and the representatives from the NGOs on a very, very regular basis. Between 2011 and end 2012, the MWC assisted around 3,000 foreign workers by referring their cases to MOM, solving workers’ employment grievances and providing interim humanitarian assistance such as accommodation and food. During this period, MOM also received close to 500 and 450 case referrals from NGOs like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME) respectively. The majority of these cases were resolved by MOM within the month.
  30. Several members like Mr Dhinakaran, Dr Lily Neo, Asst Prof Eugene Tan and Mr Cedric Foo have asked whether special attention should be paid to essential services such as public transport to safeguard workers’ interests and to ensure that labour relations in these enterprises do not break down, since that would adversely affect Singaporeans.
  31. The Government already recognises that it is critical to ensure companies providing essential services operate smoothly with minimal disruptions. Although the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act prohibits workers employed in sectors like water, electricity and gas from going on strike, they can join trade unions. Trade unions recognised by their employers can use the legal process under the Industrial Relations Act to negotiate with the employer, and surface deadlock disputes to Industrial Arbitration Court. Those employed in essential services listed in the First Schedule (which includes public transport), can go on strike so long as they give their employers 14 days advance notice. Such restrictions and advance notice pre-requisites for essential services are not unique to Singapore. Many countries have them as well. I think all of us can understand why such requirements are put into the law.
  32. MOM will be working with the respective sectoral regulators to ensure that they institute robust grievance handling procedures in essential services companies to minimise the probability of industrial action. Sectoral regulators should also work with these companies to put in place business continuity plans.

    Workplace Diversity Management
  33. Mr Liang Eng Hwa asked whether companies that hire large numbers of foreign workers are equipped to manage workers of different nationalities. In 2010, the National Integration Working Group for Workplaces (NIWG-W) had commissioned a study on the state of workplace diversity management across gender, age and nationality. While 90% of companies agreed that workplace inclusiveness and harmony were important to business outcomes, 27% responded that they faced challenges in managing a diverse workforce. For large companies, line managers and supervisors often lacked skills and knowledge in this regard. SMEs, on the other hand, lacked resources to raise awareness and put systemic processes in place.
  34. Based on these findings, the NIWG-W developed a Workplace Diversity Management Toolkit. It will help employers to assess the state of inclusiveness and harmony in their workplaces, and offers examples of initiatives they can adopt. The toolkit is readily available for employers to download at MOM’s website. NIWG-W is currently working with SNEF to explore ways to step up efforts to actively promote good workplace diversity management practices to more employers in a more sustainable manner.

    Protection and Educational Outreach for Vulnerable Workers, Including Foreign Workers
  35. I shall now move on to the second thrust on protection and educational outreach for the more vulnerable workers, including foreign workers, which Mr Dhinakaran, Mr Arthur Fong, Ms Irene Ng, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Mr Yee Jenn Jong and Mr Laurence Lien have asked about. There have also been several expressions of concern by members of the public about our management of foreign workers.
  36. Members will appreciate that with about 1.2 million guest workers, or about one out of every five persons, in Singapore, managing foreign worker issues takes a substantial amount of my Ministry’s time and effort. But it is important to watch out for this space. It is heartening to note that from a joint study done by MOM and MWC in 2011, more than nine in ten of foreign workers were satisfied with their overall working experience here. However, as I said before many times, while by and large we have good employers and Singaporeans by and large respect and appreciate the contributions made by foreign workers, there will be negative experiences and unhappy cases from time to time. I do believe that we can do more in this area and I will in this segment outline some of the existing and upcoming measures.
  37. Over the years, MOM has put in place a framework to ensure basic employment standards for all employees, in terms of legislation, enforcement and educational outreach. Our legislation is regularly reviewed to ensure their continued relevance and efficacy in view of the changing employment landscape.
  38. Recently, as Members are aware, we revised the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) to give the Government more flexibility and enforcement teeth against employers who exploit their foreign workers. Phase 2 of the EFMA review will continue later this year to better protect the well-being of workers, as well as ensure an equitable balance of rights and responsibilities between employers and workers. In addition, we are studying whether to broaden the circumstances where we allow foreign workers to change employers in instances where there has been a genuine mismatch in expectations.
  39. We are also reviewing the Employment Act. A key area in this review is the improvement of employment standards and benefits for vulnerable employees. And this applies to our local workers as well.
  40. Comprehensive legislative protection in turn needs to be underpinned by robust enforcement. MOM takes a serious view of employers who fail to fulfil their statutory duties under the law. Besides relying on cases triggered by complaints from employees, we also take proactive steps to detect errant employers. In 2012, MOM conducted about 3,000 inspections to detect potential breaches of the Employment Act and Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, including more than 850 inspections of premises used as foreign worker housing. More than 350 employers were also prosecuted and convicted for breaching Employment laws during this period.
  41. In recognition of the different circumstances faced by foreign workers, MOM further undertakes calibrated outreach efforts to educate them of their employment rights and responsibilities, and avenues for assistance. Since 2006, MOM has been issuing guidebooks published in foreign workers’ native languages to all new foreign workers when they report to MOM's Work Permit Services Centre to collect their Work Permit cards. The guidebook provides information on foreign workers’ employment rights and responsibilities under the law, and useful contact numbers, including those of MOM and the Police, NGOs, and Embassies of foreign workers’ home countries. So, if they have issues, they can call any of these above numbers and register their concerns.
  42. Going forward, we will enhance the guidebook to provide more information on proper channels for raising grievances and regulations on industrial actions.
  43. Besides providing information on employment laws, it is important to provide foreign workers with information on their basic employment terms in advance, before they enter Singapore. Since June 2011, employers have been required to declare the foreign worker’s basic monthly salary, allowances and deductions when applying for work permits. The information declared by employers is clearly stated in the copy of the In-Principle Approval letter, and a copy of this letter is sent to the worker in their native languages before they enter Singapore. We want to make sure that workers come in with their eyes fully open as to what they have agreed to and what the employers have agreed to.
  44. MOM has also piloted a series of pre-departure orientation briefings in source countries on topics such as employment laws and employment terms for Singapore-bound construction workers. MOM is also working with our partners to produce an educational video for foreign workers before they come so that they are better informed on their employment rights and how to settle any employment disputes amicably.
  45. On Mr Arthur Fong’s question of whether MOM will allow foreign workers to be unionised, let me clarify that the law already allows this to take place. In fact, many foreign workers are already union members and have their unions representing them on employment related issues such as work-related grievances. And we have encouraged the unions to be proactive on this front, in similar fashion to let our foreign worker population know that they are free to join the unions.

    Tripartism & Industrial Relations
  46. This brings me to the final point on tripartism and industrial relations, which Ms Irene Ng, Mr Cedric Foo and Ms Mary Liew have asked about.
  47. Strong tripartite cooperation has been one of Singapore’s unique strengths. We have said this many times, and it is something that I would want to say again. It is actually quite critical for us and has contributed significantly. It has brought about general industrial peace; stable jobs for all our workers; and enhanced our attractiveness as a business and investment destination. We must continue to build on this foundation so that more and better jobs can be created for Singaporeans. It is not something we should take for granted, and we should continue to strengthen this relationship.
  48. The SMRT incident revealed that industrial peace cannot be taken for granted. It was indeed, as Ms Irene Ng put it, a “wake-up call”. To strengthen tripartism, we need to build upon the spirit of cooperation between workers, employers and the Government.
  49. Given the very strong commitment by the tripartite partners, I am quite confident that we will be able to reinforce and strengthen the tripartite foundation that we have built up over the years.

  50. In conclusion, let me end by saying that it is inevitable that given the changing dynamic of our modern workforce, it will continue to pose new challenges to our existing framework for harmonious industrial relations. The SMRT incident has shown that we need to be nimble and develop new ways to address these challenges early. This will include strengthening the capacity of all parties in the employment ecosystem to minimise work-related disputes as far as possible, and resolve them fairly and expeditiously when they arise.
Last Updated on 04 February 2013
Last updated on 16 January 2012 10:48:55