Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers

All services back to normal as two-day strike comes to an end

ALL SMRT bus services were running as scheduled yesterday after two days of disruption resulting from illegal strike action by some bus drivers from China.

The company said all 450 of its Chinese drivers were accounted for, unlike on Monday when 171 did not work, and on Tuesday when 88 stayed away.

Yesterday morning, 20 drivers were at Police Cantonment Complex to help with police investigations into possible breaches of the law as a result of the illegal strike.

They were among the drivers who did not go to work on both days. The Straits Times understands that all 20 drivers were still there at midnight.

Meanwhile, SMRT conceded that it had fallen short on addressing the drivers' complaints about living conditions and pay. It promised to clean and fix two workers' dormitories in Serangoon and Woodlands, and is looking at providing better accommodation.

But it maintained that the wages of its Chinese workers, though lower than what it pays Malaysian drivers, are competitive and spelt out clearly in their contracts.

SMRT's first media briefing on this week's dramatic events was led by executive vice-president for roads and commercial Teo Chew Hoon, as chief executive Desmond Kuek is on leave overseas.

"There are many lessons learnt, one of which is to better engage our bus drivers," she said.

"We could have engaged them and explained to them the difference in the salaries."

Ms Teo said the dormitories will be fumigated to get rid of bed bugs and damaged fixtures will be fixed. She said the company could have been swifter in dealing with the workers' complaints.

Better accommodation in the form of rented Housing Board flats or apartments is also in the pipeline for the drivers.

This is something SMRT had been considering, and is likely to implement when its leases for the dormitories expire early next year.

SMRT also revealed how it paid its foreign bus drivers from China and Malaysia differently.

Malaysians are hired on a permanent basis and their basic pay of $1,200 went up to $1,350 in July and again to $1,400 last month in an ongoing salary review. They also receive a 13th month bonus of $1,400 and a variable bonus.

The Chinese nationals, on the other hand, are hired on two-year contracts. Their basic pay went up from $1,000 to $1,075 in July. They get a bonus of two months' pay at the end of their contract.

SMRT said although the Chinese workers get less, the company pays $275 each to cover their accommodation and utilities.

Ms Teo said SMRT gave these workers a $75 increase in July even though it was not bound to do so in their contracts. A second $25 increase was finalised just last week. The drivers complained about pay around July when wages were first adjusted.

While SMRT has not ruled out putting Chinese nationals on permanent contracts in future, Ms Teo said its terms for Chinese and Malaysian drivers were equitable.

Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport chairman Cedric Foo said the Manpower Ministry should consider auditing living conditions of these workers. He said: "Safe and conducive living conditions are a very basic standard of due care that all employers should comply with."

He also encouraged more Chinese drivers to join the National Transport Workers' Union as it can act as a middleman when facilitating negotiations.

Although the majority of bus drivers from China at SBS Transit are union members, only 10 per cent of SMRT's drivers from China have joined the union.

mariaa@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Royston SimMORE REPORTS:

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