Key grouse said to be over unequal salaries

For about two hours yesterday afternoon, the 100 or so SMRT bus drivers from China were huddled in a dormitory in Woodlands Sector 1, locked in negotiations over pay with SMRT management.

Police officers stood guard outside, with three patrol cars parked in front of the main building.

Finally, at around 5.45pm, a group of about 30 of them who live in a separate dormitory in Serangoon streamed out.

They told reporters who swirled around them that the transport operator had agreed to consider their decision to raise their wages, and would get back to them in a week.

SMRT had sent buses at around noon to ferry the drivers to Bishan depot to discuss the matter, but it is believed that the drivers refused to board them.

The drivers said their main unhappiness was over the unequal salaries paid to Chinese nationals and Malaysians for doing what was essentially the same job.

One driver who declined to be named said that in three pay adjustment exercises conducted this year, Chinese nationals each received a total raise of $75, compared to $275 for Malaysians.

"It is discrimination. We are foreigners, but so are they," he said in Mandarin.

Others complained about poor living conditions.

One driver folded up his left sleeve to reveal bedbug sores, and said workers at the Serangoon dormitory were constantly served leftover food. Another said conditions there were "like a prison".

An afternoon shift driver known only as Mr Yan said he learnt about the protest at 11am, and made his way to Woodlands to join the talks.

He said drivers from China have been unhappy about their low wages for some time, pointing out that with the recently introduced six-day work week, drivers earn less as they have fewer days to earn overtime pay.

There seems to have been some pressure on the drivers to act collectively.

One Chinese national told The Straits Times that he had wanted to report for work that day, but was prevented from doing so by other drivers. He did not elaborate.

At Woodlands interchange, many SMRT bus drivers declined to speak about the issue.

One Singaporean driver who wanted to be known only as Mr Rabu said he was asked to ply an additional trip yesterday morning.

The 57-year-old said: "The company did not tell us why, but we know. Some drivers did not turn up to work today."

One Malaysian bus driver in his 40s noted that while he earned more than his counterparts from China, he still loses out to local drivers who receive several hundred dollars more each month.

SMRT issued a statement last night to say all workers have agreed to go back to work today.

But five drivers from China arriving at the Serangoon dormitory at about 7pm did not seem so sure. They told The Straits Times they were still unhappy, and would "wait and see" before deciding to return to work today.