By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 28 Nov 2012
THE festering dispute between SMRT and a group of its bus drivers from China underlines yet again a perennial problem faced by the public bus industry - the inability to find enough drivers.
Before the 1990s, bus drivers were predominantly Singaporeans and permanent residents. In the 1990s, companies started hiring Malaysians because Singaporeans had become better educated and veered towards white-collar jobs.
In 2008, even the Malaysians were not enough to fill the sector - one that faces an annual attrition rate of about 15 per cent and has had to ramp up capacity and frequency to meet rising passenger numbers and higher service standards.
So, operators started hiring from China. Four years later, mainland Chinese now make up 11 per cent of SBS Transit's 5,300 bus drivers and 22 per cent of SMRT's 2,000.
The Chinese drivers have had a rocky start here, with operators extending training periods to familiarise them with local roads and commuters complaining of communication difficulties.
On Monday, 171 drivers from SMRT responded to salary inequalities - perceived or real - by refusing to go to work. More than 60 did not show up again yesterday.
While the illegal strike is being dealt with by the authorities, what also deserves study is why Singapore seems unable to even attract enough Malaysians to drive its buses, despite the Singapore dollar strengthening by nearly 30 per cent since the 1990s.
Can we assume that the lot for bus drivers has worsened - or at least stagnated - when compared with people in other jobs? The short answer is yes.
According to statistics, the basic starting monthly pay of a Singapore bus driver was less than $1,400 before adjustments were made this year. With overtime and allowances, it rises to $1,800. That is significantly below the national median wage of $2,925 of full-time employed residents last year.
After this year's pay adjustment, a driver in his first year can expect, with overtime, around $2,240 a month - still below the national median.
So it is clear to see why bus-driving is still not an aspirational career for many Singaporeans. Fewer than 4,000 Singaporeans drive buses for SBS Transit and SMRT, compared with about 40,000 who drive taxis.
A cabby on two shifts working 25 days a month can expect to take home more than $5,000.
If taxi-driving is deemed the career of last resort and reserved only for Singaporeans, what then is bus-driving if the pay disparity between the two jobs is so wide?
So, to address the problem of bus driver shortage, start with a real hard look at salaries. It is with salaries that we can also raise the status of bus drivers. There is little point in giving them fancy job titles - SMRT calls them "service leaders" - when they are paid a meagre sum.
Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo observed early this year that bus drivers in Taiwan receive around NT$60,000 (S$2,500) a month - more than twice what some fresh university graduates there get.
In Australia, the average annual package for a bus driver is A$50,000 (S$64,000) or more - well above the A$30,000 to A$35,000 that a clerical worker is paid. A Singapore bus driver gets around $35,000 after bonus and overtime.
It is never an apple-to-apple comparison, of course, since standards of living and taxes can differ widely between countries.
But here is the thing: Bus drivers account for 71 per cent of SBS Transit's headcount, but are estimated to account for less than 65 per cent of its total wage bill last year of $305.5 million.
So there may be room for driver pay to move up.
With a proper compensation package in place, we can be sure more Singaporeans will look to driving buses for a living, and bus companies can contribute more meaningfully to local employment. As it is now, the Malaysians and mainland Chinese are not costing the transport companies much less.
In fact, with the foreign worker levy and lodging factored in, a Chinese driver costs as much as a Singaporean driver. The only difference is Central Provident Fund contributions, which Singaporean workers are entitled to.
Beyond salaries, we have to examine the work conditions and welfare of bus drivers. In the case of Chinese drivers, that includes living conditions.
Is housing them in worker dormitories, as practised by SMRT, the proper way to go?
The Chinese driver protesters complained of poor conditions. One rolled up his sleeves on Monday to reveal an arm dotted with bed bug bites.
SBS Transit houses its Chinese drivers in Housing Board flats, with each room accommodating two to three people. It works out to be a costlier option than dorms, but it is clearly better for the drivers, who are better integrated with Singaporeans in the estate, with good access to food and amenities.
Welfare extends to how a company metes out changes. In the case of SMRT, moving from a five-day to six-day week when it raised salaries earlier this year proved a big misstep.
Even though the minimum weekly hours remained at 44, it is considered a welfare loss by folks who prefer an extra day off for family. And those who prefer to work overtime lost an opportunity to do so, because now the sixth day has become mandatory.
The company followed this up with another pay adjustment last month. But that was probably too little, too late - a description that may well fit the latest attempt at making bus driver salaries here more competitive.
More needs to be done if Singapore wants to roll out 800 additional buses under a $1.1 billion five-year government-assisted programme - a move which requires around 1,600 more drivers - in a timely fashion.
Pay all drivers fairly, say commuters
But higher wages should not mean high fares, they add
by Neo Chai Chin, TODAY, 27 Nov 2012
Commuters questioned public transport provider SMRT's handling of the dispute with the protesting bus drivers from China, with most amenable to pay increases for the drivers to a level on par with their Malaysian counterparts.
Some had never encountered a labour strike before and said they felt "unnerved" by the drivers' actions. "It's well-entrenched in all of us that you do not go on strike. It puts commuters in a precarious situation where they are held hostage to the drivers' actions," said civil servant Koh Weiming, 30, speaking a day after the strike on Monday.
But he felt SMRT was the most accountable party, saying the drivers' actions "speaks volumes of the way SMRT handled negotiations with them".
"Whether for foreign or local staff, there should be a proper way to handle grievances," he said.
The unhappiness reportedly arose over unequal pay raises, with the Chinese nationals receiving three increments totalling S$75, compared to a total of S$275 for the Malaysians.
Part-time receptionist Chua Lay Kwan, 46, said that the salary grouses of the drivers' warranted a review by SMRT, but felt the drivers who refused to work should be penalised for their actions to deter future occurences.
Photographer Irvin Tan, 30, was supportive of a pay raise for the Chinese drivers. "In any situation to do with wages, fairness has to prevail," he said, adding that the drivers' welfare should also include reasonable work hours, career opportunities and their happiness at work.
But most commuters felt that higher wages should not translate into higher fares, citing public transport as a public good and the profitable status of SMRT.
Executive Ms Wong, 23, who declined to give her full name, said she experienced some inconvenience yesterday as services 960 and 190 - which she takes daily to work in City Hall from the Choa Chu Kang area - arrived at lower frequencies.
Some buses were too full to board, and she gave up after 20 minutes, taking another bus to the train station instead. She hoped for the dispute to be solved as quickly as possible, but said SMRT's management would have its reasons for not offering the same pay to Chinese drivers as their Malaysian drivers.
Labour experts said various reasons could account for pay differences between different groups of workers - recruitment costs, workers' qualifications and experience, and the level of supply, just to name a few.
"In Singapore, for example, we are used to different pay for domestic helpers of different nationalities which may be attributed to demand and supply differences," said labour economist Hui Weng Tat of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
There may be a need to review work conditions and salaries of bus drivers, taking into account their responsibilities in promoting road safety and ensuring smooth functioning of the public transport system, and of their pay relative to other occupations, said Associate Professor Hui, who noted that Singapore bus drivers rank lowest among developed countries in terms of pay.
There is also a need for employers of a diverse workforce to be sensitive to cultural differences, said Singapore Management University's Professor of Strategic Management (Practice) Pang Eng Fong. "If you're going to be managing a workforce that is increasingly diverse - not only in terms of gender and age but also nationalities - you've got to be a lot more sensitive. Differences between groups are going to be sharper and can (result in) resentment if not properly managed," he said.
Agreeing, Member of Parliament Zainal Sapari said: "At the end of the day, if a company is over-reliant on a particular group of workers from a particular country, they must be aware of the cultural differences and labour relations. The PRC workers may not be aware that they what they are doing may be illegal. If a company is over-reliant, they need to manage the risk of it."