I didn’t know it was this bad.
Apparently SMRT imports foreign drivers from China by the busload on 2-year contracts, houses them 8-to-a-room in worker dormitories and provides buses to ferry them to and from their depots at the start and end of their shifts.
At the end of two years, these workers are presumably flown back to China if their contracts are not renewed.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was a military-like operation and the workers are just numbers in a computer scheduling system, to be moved by the system as it sees fit. It reminds me of my Army days, where I was provided food and shelter in military camps, driven in 3-tonners to my place of ‘work’, and returned to my bunk at the end of the work day.
Though hopefully the SMRT drivers don’t have to endure the weekly ‘stand-by bed’ that I had to endure over 20 years ago.
I really didn’t it know was this bad.
I had imagined that the PRC drivers I met were here on their own volition, that they might have rented rooms in HDB flats using their own pay, and that they were employed individually by SMRT (and SBS), not en-masse.
How mistaken I was!
I now see that we are short of thousands and thousands of workers in the transport industry. The same goes for the F&B industry (where we see lots of Pinoys waiters and bartenders), IT industry (full of Indians), maids (Indo, Filipino girls), construction and heavy industry (full of Bangladeshis and Indians), call centre industry (mainly Pinoy girls) and other less glamourous industries.
How many hundreds or thousands of dormitories are there in Singapore to house all these (transient) foreign workers? More importantly, how long can Singapore survive like this?
Allowing SMRT to hire thousands of foreign workers on contract is the equivalent of running SMRT on steroids. The cheap labour fuels SMRT’s short-term profits, but has debilitating long-term effects, like all performance-enhancing drugs.
With cheap contract labour, there is no incentive for SMRT to increase productivity and no reason for SMRT to invest in employee development. It drives down the pay of all bus drivers. Contract staff feel treated badly, like the lowest form of intelligent life in the SMRT food chain. Resentment and unhappiness builds, which culminated into a strike last week. Meanwhile, the company can make huge profits because of access to a cheap labour pool, thus management pats itself on its back and pays itself huge bonuses.
But is this sustainable? The biggest risk is that the flow of cheap labour can be turned off very suddenly and SMRT (and other companies) will not be able to cope in time.
We’re already seeing this in the employment of maids, where both the Filipino and Indonesian govts have recently enacted regulations to disallow their workers from bearing the agent placement fees (typically $2-3,000), increase their minimum monthly pay (minimum $500 now), stipuate the minimum no of days off, etc. to better their work conditions and welfare.
As a result, new maids have suddenly become expensive to hire and some families are now stuck. Their working hours don’t allow them to easily do without a maid, and now they suddenly face huge increases in their maid costs.
What if this happens to SMRT or SBS? Or to other industries? Will Singapore be able to cope? Is SMRT prepared to double the pay of bus drivers overnight? Can our IT shops cope? Etc.
Why is it that in Europe or America there are natives willing to drive buses, wait tables, work as au pairs, do roadworks and construction— but not here? How come they can provide world-class train and bus services that run on schedule, provide good restaurant services etc, without relying on transient foreign workers?
Why can’t we do it?
In the US, I often see young Americans waiting tables, but I rarely see young Singaporeans doing that here. Why?
If we can’t get Singaporeans to do even the ‘light’ jobs (like waiting tables or bartending), what hope is there of getting them to do the heavy jobs, like construction or road-building?
Can we rely on transient foreign workers forever?