By Jennifer Cheung
Four Chinese bus drivers will stand trial in Singapore on 4 March accused of staging an illegal strike last November.
The four bus drivers had been detained on 29 November 2012 and charged under article 10(a) of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act. They were later released on bail.
At a pretrial hearing on 8 February, they declined a prosecution offer to reduce their charges from instigating a strike to a “section nine” charge of participating in a strike if they agreed to plead guilty.
Andrew Goh, the lawyer for one of the drivers, Liu Xiangying, pointed out that the reduced charge still carried a maximum punishment of one year imprisonment and or a fine of S$2,000. Goh added that another driver, Bao Fengxiang, had earlier been sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment under section nine and that he did not see why the judge in this case would sentence the drivers to a lesser term.
Moreover, one of the drivers, He Junling, faces an additional charge of incitement after making an online post calling on drivers to take medical leave.
A total of 171 Chinese bus drivers employed by SMRT, a state-owned Singaporean bus company, took “collective leave” on 26 November and called for higher pay and better living condition. The average monthly salary for Singaporean drivers was reportedly S$1,700, while the Chinese drivers’ monthly average was only S$1,075.
Although the work stoppage only disrupted about five percent of the city’s bus services, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower still identified it as an “illegal strike” in an essential sector that constituted “a threat to public order.” Under Singaporean law, workers in “essential” sectors, such as banking, ports, postal, air, prison, bus and hospital services, all have to give their employer 14 days’ notice before they go on strike.
China’s Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs both issued statements of concern over the drivers but the most active support has come from two Singaporean civil society organizations, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), who have both provided lawyers for the detained drivers and raised awareness of their plight in Singapore and internationally.
The two groups were instrumental in alerting the public to the alleged verbal and physical assault on two bus drivers, He Junling and Liu Xiangying by the Singapore police during their time in custody. He Junling said in a video interview that the police punched his stomach during his interrogation, and Liu said the police threatened to “bury him in a hole” if he didn’t confess.
Shortly after the video was released, the police said in a statement that they were aware of the allegations and urged the drivers to make a report so that they could investigate the case.
“The drivers are considering raising the matter in court,” said Shelley Thio, executive committee member of TWC2. “If they go to trial, it will be more than likely that this allegation will be brought before the trial.”
On 29 January, TWC2 and other civil society groups released a statement calling for a full and independent inquiry into the allegations of police brutality. The group cited Article 14 of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights, of which Singapore is a party to, which states that no person shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Earlier on 5 December, Human Rights Watch issued a press release, urging Singapore to drop the charges against the bus drivers as they restricted the rights to freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to strike.
The press release noted that the International Labour 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 these conditions can reasonably apply to the situation of the Chinese bus drivers in Singapore, Human Rights Watch said.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress has 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. Although foreign workers can join the union, 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. SMRT reportedly employs around 2,000 bus drivers, 22 percent are Chinese nationals and fewer than ten percent of them are union members.