SMRT’s Pay-More-No-Choice-But-to-Work-More Scheme

On 18 May 2012, the SMRT announced a 35% pay rise for new Singaporean bus drivers, bringing their monthly basic pay to $1600. This move was applauded by Ong Ye Kung, the National Transport Workers’ Union executive secretary.

What both the SMRT and Ong Ye Kung neglected to mention, however, was that the pay rise comes with… one extra day’s work.

SMRT is now mandating a 6-day work week, where it used to be 5 days. A group of SMRT bus drivers then sent an email to the media (including online media), asserting this “pay rise”, along with an extra day’s work, would either result in negligible increases or, in certain cases, a decrease in their daily wages. SMRT and “unionist” Ong sought to defend the new scheme, which I shall call the Pay More, No Choice but to Work More scheme.

That a so-called “unionist” is defending this scheme demonstrates our unions either do not understand or are disrespectful of the importance of a) encouraging work-life balance; b) protecting workers’ health and safety; c) workers’ autonomy, the need to have some control over our work life and decisions.

This 6-day work week, after all, was a unilateral decision. While bus drivers expressed shock and disappointment, the SMRT and Ong determined that the problem was one of poor communication, rather than the scheme itself, or the fact that workers were not consulted, despite this decision being “discussed at length between management and union leaders, who support it”.

The SMRT is now working on a “series of communication sessions”, with Ong expressing regret that “[t]he news ran ahead of ground communications”, which has “caused confusion among the drivers”.

Confusion? Bus drivers are pissed off because they feel ripped off – they currently face the possibility of being paid less in “daily gross remuneration” while forced to work more days per week, even as SMRT claims credit for “raising workers’ pay” (with the unions supporting the latter). To call it “confusion” is to suggest workers have no legitimate claim to their disgruntledness, that it is merely the “lack of communication” which has led to bus drivers not viewing this new arrangement positively. What is actually confounding, though, is the following:

Work-life balance and pay rise – mutually exclusive for bus-drivers?
In January 2006, the SMRT decided to go from a 6-day work week to a 5-day work week. The reason? To promote better work-life balance.

In May 2012, the SMRT decides to go from a 5-day work week back to a 6-day work week – why? Because they are increasing bus drivers’ pay.

This was kind of head-scratching at first – is work-life balance no longer important for bus drivers? Doesn’t SMRT say on its website that “our people are our assets”? Didn’t MPs recently speak up for bus drivers in Parliament, citing concerns about bus drivers’ “long working hours, short breaks, and the need to deal with traffic and passengers”? When questions were raised over the government’s $1.1 billion dollar subsidy to public transport operators, there were assurances this subsidy could contribute to “improving salary and work conditions”.

I didn’t realize this was an either/or option – either improving salary or work conditions.

Perhaps the SMRT has not visited the Ministry of Manpower’s website, which states:

The implementation of a Work-Life strategy is key to achieving such a win-win situation for both employers and employees. It also plays an important part in attracting and retaining talent. The business benefits resulting from a successful Work-Life strategy can include: 
 • Increased productivity; 
• Improved recruitment and retention; 
• Lower absenteeism rates; • Improved customer experience; and 
• A more motivated, satisfied and equitable workforce. 

 In terms of bottom line, for every $1 spent on family-friendly programmes, a company reaps an average return of $1.68. 

Seeing as the SMRT is in dire need of all of the above benefits, why isn’t the union reminding them of the importance of work-life balance (instead of publicly defending them)? And where is the Tripartite Alliance of Fair Employment Practices when you need them?

It seems as if ‘work-life strategy’ is only applicable to some groups of workers (like busy executives), but not others (like bus drivers). For bus drivers, it appears a perverse human resource principle applies – if you want a marginal pay increase, you must face – and accept – reductions in your working conditions.

“Unionists” are busy pointing out that SMRT bus drivers want to work overtime – but this, surely, is different from mandating a 6-day work week, in which all bus drivers are denied a choice over when and whether they want to work more than 5 days a week, how frequently, and for how long.

SMRT bus drivers, in their email to the media, stated:

Having the policy changed by SMRT Bus Service from a 5 days work week to a 6 days work week will result in bus drivers having less time for their families, which is contrary to the Singapore government’s policy of work-life balance. Bus drivers will only have 1 rest day a week and have to apply leave should they wish to spend more time with their family. Currently, on a 5 days work week, it is already very hard for us to apply leave as there is a quota set for each service route. With only one rest day now, it will only make matters worst. How does SMRT Bus Service expect to recruit more locals with 6 days work week? 

Transport unionist also SMRT board member? 
A year ago, in May 2011, Ong Ye Kung, a PAP candidate campaigning as part of the Aljunied GRC team during GE 2011, said he saluted bus-drivers for their hard work and can-do spirit. In his rally speech, Ong asked: “What has the WP done, in tangible terms for low-wage workers? Will talking help low-wage workers? Or will taking action help them?”

Well, action has been taken, but has it helped? Maybe – if you’re SMRT.

While reading TODAY’s article on the pay rise, I noted that National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) deputy secretary-general Ong Ye Kung is also the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union and a board member of SMRT Corporation. Er, the union representative who is meant to negotiate on behalf of bus drivers, is also a board member of the profit-driven SMRT Corporation?

That this was part of a matter-of-fact description about Ong tells us much about the state of our current labour movement.


The campaign is now on to prove, irrevocably, that bus drivers, without a doubt, will be earning more under this Pay More, No Choice but to Work More scheme. The union continues to stress that the loss of overtime pay is a key concern of bus drivers, and that this will be addressed through a rostering cycle to ensure “there is no loss in overtime overall”. But surely other questions need to be asked? For example,

· Is this bus drivers’ preferred way to raise their wages? Yes, they may be asking for more overtime to boost their wages, but if their wages were actually commensurate with inflation, would so many of them want to be working such long hours over an extended period of time? When workers are reliant on overtime pay in order to get by each month, doesn’t that signify their current wages are inadequate?

· Is this a “sustainable” way to raise wages? When a group of workers are viewed as underpaid, is lengthening their work week the only way to justify a wage increase? How far along can/should we stretch this? (Strangely enough, this principle seems to apply only in the low-wage sectors.)

· When overtime and overtime pay is “factored in”, leaving workers little choice to opt out – because it has already been assumed by the company they all want to opt in, indefinitely – isn’t this akin to forced overtime? If the company and the unions are so confident workers want overtime, then why not leave it as it is, a 5-day work week, with the option to work longer hours and days if workers wish to? (And pay higher overtime rates, so there will be a pay increase)

· With all this focus on extending work hours to earn more pay, is there no consideration of the fact that driving long hours is tiring, and that fatigue is closely linked to increased accidents on the road? Is driver and commuter safety – not only of the bus drivers, but general road users too – not a priority?

So, yes, I agree with Ong that there is much confusion – but I really don’t think it is bus drivers that need to sit down and listen.


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