Shipyard workers talked out of strike by advocacy group

Advocacy group persuaded some 120 foreigners not to stop work over pay dispute

Around 120 foreign shipyard workers came close to staging an illegal strike last month over unpaid wages. But they were talked out of it by the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC), a foreign workers advocacy group backed by the labour movement.

The MWC kept this under wraps until the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) confirmed the case with The Straits Times yesterday.

The workers - 100 from Bangladesh and 20 from India - were hired by Akash Engineering and Technology, a sub-contractor for ship building and repair.

Unhappy that their salaries for up to 31/2 months had not been paid, some workers went to the MWC on Jan 15, saying that they would not be turning up for work the next day unless they got their money.

"They were very serious about it and had even returned their safety gear to the company," MWC executive director Hans Goh said.

He revealed that six MWC staff went to the workers' dormitory in Lim Chu Kang that evening to talk them out of their plans. They roped in an MOM director, who promised the workers that the ministry would look into their salary disputes the next day.

"We told them, 'Once you break the law, that is it, we can't help you any more'," said Mr Goh. "We also said that if their employer fired them for refusing to work, they would lose everything."

He would not be drawn into saying whether the MWC, which was set up in 2009 by the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers' Federation, had averted an illegal strike, preferring to call it an "industrial action" or "sit in", which is the labour movement's parlance for protests by workers.

The Straits Times understands that a local shipyard that hired the company as a sub-contractor paid the workers the salaries owed the next day.

The workers declined to be interviewed because most of them are still working for the company.

Contacted on the phone, the company's director, Mr Kakarlapudi Venkata Madhava Varma, a permanent resident, said that the wage dispute had been settled. "Only some payment was outstanding. Everything has been sorted out, and I don't see any issue now."

He declined to reveal the amount of salary that was owed, saying that the company was not in any financial trouble. Official company records show that the company has a paid-up capital of $850,000.

But it is not off the hook yet. "Investigations into Akash are ongoing for possible offences under the Employment Act," the MOM said, without elaborating.

While it is not illegal to strike in Singapore, there are regulations to follow, including a registered trade union having to get the majority of affected members to say "yes" by secret ballot.

The last strike in Singapore was in November 2012, when 171 SMRT bus drivers from China failed to show up for work to protest against living conditions and being paid less than their Malaysian colleagues. Five have since been convicted, and are serving jail terms of between six and seven weeks for instigating the illegal strike.

Member of Parliament Zainudin Nordin, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said that more could be done to educate foreign workers about Singapore's laws and regulations. "They have to have trust in our system and should not resort to doing things that would break the law."