Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The THICK line between convenience and exploitation

Workers from essential services going on strike are considered illegal under our laws. On 26 November 2012, more than 100 Chinese national bus drivers went on strike in Singapore, breaking the two-decade old of strike-free  records of our demure workforce. Their actions were considered illegal in the eyes of our laws. 29 to be repatriated, 4 to be charged and 1 already jailed.

On the facade, such laws were legislated to eradicate any possibility of disruption in public/essential services to ensure a smooth function of our society. The term "essential services" covers a HUGE range of sectors, eg. banking, telecom, water, ICA, newspapers, SAF, postal, healthcare.....etc.
As a member of the public, and like any selfish being, I would hate to be inconvenienced by the industrial actions of the workers in the essential services, such as the cleaners from my estate. How else could I tolerate the state of cleanliness of my estate for even one day without proper cleaning? Who would chauffeur me to work if transport workers were to go on strike? How would the society function without these workers from essential services? Yes, HOW? 

I have no qualms of the fierce support coming from Singaporeans in illegalizing strikes for the sake of our own convenience and the weakness of our selfish traits. It does seem to benefit EVERYONE as a member of the public when public services are involved, to enforce a strike-free enviornment. I confess that I used to think along this line two decades ago.

And therefore, the justification comes cleverly, by mobilizing the selfish traits of the members of the public to criminalize the undesirable/selfish actions of a group of individuals for holding the public ransom for their monetary demands through the actions of strikes.

The striking question is, who are we protecting exactly with such a law against strikes? For the members of the public or for the few employers?

Unfortunately, the scope of "essential services" is largely  public services where there is little or no presence of competition, ie. a single source of service provider, which is namely the government as it is the only employer

If cleaners of a coffeeshop go on strike, we could simply switch to another coffeeshop for services, given the stiff competition present in genuine private businesses. 

However, if public services were to come to a halt, there is no other alternative source of service provider for consumers to choose from. It will strike a terror into the hearts of the public which will in turn help the "employer", ie. our government, to assume the right to eliminate every bargaining power from the workers so as to ensure a subdued pool of local labour. As such, the employer, aka the government, sets the artificial "market rate", forcing the workers to be wage-takers. 

It is evident that the law against strikes is not so much for the convenience of the society but more on cost-savings.

Eg. our cleaners and bus drivers have not seen much increment in their wages until post GE 2011 when the issue of our low wage workers were brought to surface. Before GE 2011, monthly salary for cleaners were under $1000 and average basic monthly salary for bus drivers were $1400. Paradoxically, these people, our people were forced to take up such wages for being part of the essential workforce. They are being devalued for the essentiality of their jobs. 

Exploitation is the only honest word that could describe the mentality of the employer/government.

Btw, the bus drivers who went on strike are from SMRT, a private enterprise and 54% owned by Temasek Holdings which is the investment company of our government. As the main shareholder of SMRT, our government holds influence over this "private" enterprise and thus cannot shun entirely from criticism in maneuvering the low wage levels of our bus drivers. 
As users of public services, we have to see through the disguises of employers, largely the government which directly and indirectly employs the bulk of our labour force, of justifying the exploitation of our workers, through the use of: 
1) illegalizing strikes
2) unlimited access to cheaper foreign labour 

Delve deeper, we should understand that the much valued convenience of our society comes at an expense of some of our people. We must also see the close association of persistent exploitation of our workers with ourselves. While ourselves or our family members may not be part of that essential service workforce now, given the exploitative mindset of our government and employers, we cannot be assured there will not come a day when our services will be listed as part of the "essential services" and subject to exploitations for their own gains. 

The myth of higher salaries for essential service workers will translate into higher costs for members of the public must be debunked. [Pay $1 more to increase pay for cleaners] We must avoid falling into the clever trap of believing that higher salaries of our people must come direct from our own pockets instead of the tax pool to which we have contributed directly and indirectly, as well as the prices which we pay for all the public services. There are no free lunches but there has to be a limit to profiteering by the employer/government. Years of wage depression did not translate into cost-savings for consumers. Town council fees, transport fares, housing prices etc did not come down despite zero or negative growth for wages for front line workers.

Btw, SMRT's net profits rose from 56 million in 2002 to $160 million each year for 2009 - 2011 period. Did wages for frontline SMRT workers grow proportionately to that of the net profits?

As wage-takers, there could not be a genuine communication/discussion with the employers who sets the wages, and therefore, our workers are open to blatant exploitations. 

Desmond Kuek of SMRT and Lee Hsien Loong both reiterated the decision to continue sourcing for cheaper labour abroad, respectively for SMRT and for our country. This will be the trend for our workers and country.

Convenience should not naturally result in exploitation, whether on our workers or on foreign workers.