Bus captains with corporals' pay?

In the last several years, there have been many attempts to raise the status of bus drivers and the appeal of driving a bus as a career.

The need to do so came into sharp focus when 171 SMRT bus drivers from China went on strike over pay and living conditions in 2012.

Stricter regulations regarding the hiring of foreign workers, and Singapore's fast-expanding public bus fleet in the face of soaring ridership have also made this goal imperative.

This month, two more initiatives were rolled out.

Last week, SMRT and the Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability joined hands to create a more structured career advancement path for drivers.

And this week, Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo announced steps to safeguard the job security and benefits of bus drivers in the new government contracting regime.

Bus contracting could see an operator losing certain route parcels if it fails to meet service standards. Mrs Teo said employees must be offered a job by firms which take over the routes of their current employers. And the terms cannot be worse than what the drivers have been enjoying.

On Thursday, a reader of The Straits Times also wrote in to remind the newspaper that it should refrain from calling bus drivers "bus drivers". They should be addressed, he said, as "bus captains" - a term coined by the operators some 15 years ago to make the job of piloting a bus more dignified.

While all these are admirable steps, the crux of the issue is still pay. Driving a bus does not pay very well.

For instance, before the latest round of adjustments made last year, SMRT drivers earned about $2,500 a month, including overtime pay.

After the adjustment, local drivers could earn around $3,600 with overtime. (Comparable rates at SBS Transit were not available, but the company said a local driver in his first year of work can earn $2,700 a month with overtime, based on a 52-hour week.)

It is painfully clear the pre-adjustment figure was dismal. The revised figure is a huge jump in percentage terms, and puts the earning of a driver in the ballpark of the national median income from work.

It sounds decent, but it comes with 60-hour weeks. Yes, Singaporeans in general work long hours, but a 60-hour work week is still in the upper limits.

And unlike a desk job or production line work, 60 hours on the road takes a lot out of a person. Especially when he is behind the wheel of a 12m-long vehicle carrying 70 passengers, stopping and starting every 400m or so. On top of that, he faces heavy city traffic, parked cars in bus lanes, and ill-located bus stops that require him to occasionally filter across three lanes to a junction just 40m away - with no one giving way.

All that for an income that a taxi driver clocking the same hours can quite easily exceed.

Last week, SMRT launched a recruitment campaign to woo part-time drivers. It is targeted at people who do not want to or cannot work full-time.

These part-timers will drive during the morning and evening peaks, when more buses are required on the road.

The salary is $10-$12 an hour, which is not a lot. In fact, unskilled part-time wait staff at a restaurant can earn as much, excluding tips.

SMRT says it cannot pay more than what a full-timer is getting, which is roughly $15 an hour ($3,600 divided by 240 hours per month).

Well, if bus operators are having difficulty filling positions with $15 an hour (hence, they are still reliant on foreign labour), it is unlikely they will have much luck with $10-$12 rates.

So, what is the solution? Well, perhaps differentiating the benefits for full-timers and part-timers can be explored.

Pay both similar rates (since they essentially do the same job), but give full-timers more benefits, such as comprehensive medical and dental packages, annual leave, and ex-gratia bonuses.

Or raise driver salaries some more. That would be the ideal route. With the imminent competitive bus contracting system, there is certainly room for this, since operators can factor in better remuneration packages into their bids.

At the end of the day, if we want to make a job more appealing, and if we want to raise professionalism and prestige, a reasonable salary must be the starting point.

It is futile calling them captains, when the disparity between title and pay is so wide.

christan@sph.com.sg