End Nationality-Based Discrimination in Work Conditions, Wages
December 5, 2012
“Singapore defies basic labor rights by criminalizing migrant workers for a work stoppage and threatening them with prison terms, fines, and deportation. It then adds insult to injury by justifying nationality-based discrimination in pay and working conditions, and restricting foreign workers’ rights to form or lead a union to do something about it.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

(Bangkok) – Singapore authorities should immediately drop charges against four migrant Chinese bus drivers who face trial on December 6, 2012, for leading a two-day work stoppage. The criminal case against the drivers, who work for the public transport company SMRT, implicates the rights to freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to strike.


On November 26, 171 bus drivers from China refused to report to work on the basis of grievances centered principally on discrimination. On November 27, 88 drivers did not report to work. The drivers alleged that they earn significantly lower monthly wages than drivers of other nationalities, have less choice in assignment of bus routes, and are compelled to live in poor and unhygienic living conditions in SMRT-provided quarters, with rent mandatorily deducted from their pay. The workers did not conduct any public assembly or protest.

“Singapore defies basic labor rights by criminalizing migrant workers for a work stoppage and threatening them with prison terms, fines, and deportation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It then adds insult to injury by justifying nationality-based discrimination in pay and working conditions, and restricting foreign workers’ rights to form or lead a union to do something about it.”

Each of the four men charged – He Jung Liang, Gao Yue Qiang, Liu Xiangying, and Wang Xianjie – faces up to  a year in prison and/or a fine up to S$2,000 (US$1640) for conducting an illegal strike under article 10(a) of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. The government sentenced another Chinese bus driver, Bao Feng Shan, to six weeks in prison after he pleaded guilty on December 3 to the same charge. Authorities detained another 29 Chinese bus drivers who participated in the work stoppage, revoked their work permits, and summarily deported them to China on December 2.

The Ministry of Manpower characterized the action as an “illegal strike” in an essential sector that constituted “a threat to public order.” Singapore requires 14 days of advance notice for a strike involving an economic sector considered “essential.” According to media reports, SMRT employs 450 Chinese nationals as drivers out of a total of approximately 2,000 drivers. About 5 percent of the city-state’s bus services were disrupted on those two days before service returned to normal on November 28.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), of which Singapore is a member, says that the right to strike is “a fundamental right to be enjoyed by workers,” as long as the right is exercised in a peaceful manner. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has found that restrictions on the right to strike in so-called “essential services” can only be justified in sectors that are “essential” in the strictest sense of the term, where the interruption of that service could endanger the life, safety, or health of all or part of the population, or in situations of acute national crisis.

None of the conditions for a sector to be “essential” can reasonably apply to the situation of the Chinese bus drivers in Singapore, Human Rights Watch said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is widely accepted as reflective of customary international law, provides that, “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” It entitles everyone to all the rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration “without distinction of any kind,” including “national or social origin.” Yet SMRT has discriminated based on nationality, paying China migrant workers S$1,075 per month while Malaysian drivers earn S$1,400 a month and Singaporean drivers earn even more.

Singapore should promptly ratify ILO Convention No. 111 on Discrimination in Employment and Occupation, which requires a member state to promote “equality of opportunity and treatment in respect of employment and occupation, with a view to eliminating any discrimination in respect thereof.” Singapore is also bound to respect the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which was adopted by consensus by the ILO in 1998 and commits all ILO member states to abide by core labor standards – including elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation – as a consequence of becoming a member of the ILO and thereby subscribing to the ILO constitution.

“As a country that depends on migrant workers, Singapore should recognize it’s playing with fire by permitting private and state-owned companies to discriminate based on the nationality of the worker,” Robertson said. “Sadly, the government is drawing the wrong conclusion from the bus drivers’ strike. Rather than prosecuting migrant workers who speak up, the government should ensure that all workers have equal rights.”

Singapore’s sole national labor center, the National Trade Union Congress, expressed support for the government’s position and added that the Chinese bus drivers were not union members. However, Singaporean law restricts workers’ rights to freedom of association on the basis of nationality. The Trade Unions Act prohibits anyone who is not a citizen of Singapore from serving as a national or branch officer, an employee, or a trustee of a trade union without the explicit written approval of the Minister of Manpower. The law effectively prevents migrant workers from representing themselves, and instead requires them to join a Singaporean-led trade union if they want to have union representation.

“Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress was quick to condemn the Chinese bus drivers for violating laws, but failed to support the right of migrant workers to stand up for themselves,” Robertson said. “Singapore has a multinational workforce and society, and its labor and trade union laws should reflect that fact by embracing an end to discrimination based on nationality.”

Human Rights Watch cited the wrong article of the Criminal Protection (Temporary Provisions) Act when referring to charges against four migrant bus drivers from China.  They were charged under section 10(a) of that Act, not section 9(1) as originally written.

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