Civil society speaks up on workers’ rights

Singapore Democrats

A forum initiated by civilsociety organisations drew a standing-room-only crowd with more who could not get in.Speakers argued that the industrial action by Chinese bus driverslast week has deep implications for Singaporean workers.$CUT$

Speakers from various organisations, took the PAP Government to task on its labour rights record. Sinappan Samydorai of Think Centre, took the audience through a dossier of specificlabour rights removed over the decades.

Dr Loh Kah Seng, researcherat Kyoto University’s Southeast Asian Studies Centre, then gave ahistory of the trade union movement in Singapore: the currentclimate, he reminded, is a far cry from its 1950s and ‘60s heyday.

Teo Soh Lung of Function8 and a retired lawyer whoworked closely with labour organisations in the 1970s and ‘80s tooka critical approach to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Actwhich, she noted wryly, has remained ‘temporary’ for nearly 60years.

She questioned why the government hadwaded in to issue a verdict on the legality of the strike before thecase had been heard. Such a case is classed as sub judice and can attract contempt of court. Comparing thecareful wording of China’s Xinhua news agency ‘on suspicion ofinstigating an “illegal strike”’, she speculated whether theAttorney General would prefer charges.

Blogger (and migrant worker activist)Alex Au asked how Singapore should strike the right balance between the stability ofessential services and the protection of workers. The key principlehe said, was quid pro quo. That is,if essential workers are expected not to undertake industrial action,alternative arrangements should ensure their basic rights are notabrogated.

Most audience contributions followingthe speeches were comments rather than questions, suggesting that thegeneral principles of worker rights that the speakers had laid outwere not disputed.

A Singaporean bus driver spokeeloquently on the struggles posed by his working conditions and theextremely limited management support afforded when concerns areraised. He went on to say that, given the high cost of living inSingapore, local workers should be paid more.

Corinna Lim, Executive Director ofAWARE, acting in her personal capacity, took the audience through aStatement prepared by the forum organisers. She invited citizens to supportit.

Jolovan Wham, a migrant labour social worker, also present in hispersonal capacity, announced that a website is being set up whichwould carry the Statement.

While they spoke, a photo of the fourChinese bus drivers holding a thank you placard in English andMandarin was screened, drawing a sympathetic reaction fromthe audience. Many several of those detained underOperation Spectrum for their work among poor workers were alsopresent.

The forum sent a clear signal that the time has come for the Government to stop the exploitation of workers in Singapore.

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