What was a small, peaceful strike in a dormitory in Woodlands by a group of bus drivers has resulted in five charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act and 29 repatriated to China as the government demonstrates its “zero tolerance” for strike action.

On Monday morning 171 drivers from SMRT (one of Singapore’s two public transport companies) refused to go to work, assembling outside their dormitory in protest against poor living conditions and discrepancy in pay for drivers of different nationalities. 88 continued the strike on Tuesday.

While Singaporean drivers are paid S$1,775 a month, Malaysians are paid S$1,400 and Chinese S$1,075. Both Singaporeans and Malaysians will receive a month’s bonus at the end of the year, while Chinese drivers will only receive a month’s bonus after the completion of their two-year contract. Chinese drivers receive free lodging in dormitories, but the workers complained of overcrowding and other issues such as bedbug infestations. An investigation by the Ministry of Manpower found that the housekeeping in the dormitories were “below par” and that drivers working different shifts were often roomed together, making it difficult for workers to get any rest.

The form that employees need to submit in order to go on strike.

This bus strike is the first major strike in Singapore in over three decades. Previous strikes undertaken by migrant workers in the construction sector have passed relatively unnoticed, but this strike involves a public transport company. With public transport deemed an “essential service” in Singapore, striking is outlawed under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act – also known as the CLTPA – unless 14 days’ notice is given. The Chinese workers had not given any notice.

The strike was roundly condemned by the establishment: Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan Jin labelled it an “illegal strike” for which there would be “zero tolerance”. The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) agreed, sternly demanding that the workers be dealt with. The episode was quickly framed as a criminal action perpetuated by a group of workers who had deprived Singapore of an “essential service”.

Singaporeans also expressed disapproval of the drivers’ strike, saying that the workers should have negotiated with the company instead. But how easy is it for workers to seek redress for their grievances through official processes?

In their press statement migrant worker NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) stated that “there is a gap between what is offered on paper as due process and what actually happens”. Mediation between employer and employee is often tilted in favour of the employer, and migrant workers face further risks of work permit cancellations and repatriation without compensation.

This can clearly be seen in the case of the bus strike: five were singled out and charged under the CLTPA for participating in an illegal strike, while 29 who were described as “hostile and aggressive” will be repatriated. This, even though their concerns were legitimate: there is discrepancy in wages and even the ministry found that standards needed to be improved in the dormitories. Would these issues really have been picked up in closed-door negotiations if the workers had not resorted to industrial action? Or would they have been swept under the carpet?

Labour relations in Singapore have been dysfunctional for a long time. Instead of independent unions, we have a tripartite system where unions, employers and the government are more often than not closely intertwined. In fact, the unions are often seen as taking the side of the employers and the government, rather than that of the workers. Without the right to organise and participate in collective action, workers have essentially lost their most important bargaining chip, exacerbating the power imbalance between employer and employee.

That practically the entire machinery of the state had been employed in oppressing the strike is telling of how things are done in Singapore. In a Facebook status update Tan Chuan Jin thanked his colleagues in “SPF [Singapore Police Force], MHA [Ministry of Home Affairs], MOM [Ministry of Manpower], MOT [Ministry of Transport], LTA [Land Transport Authority], MinLaw [Ministry of Law], ICA [Immigration & Checkpoints Authority], AGC [Attorney-General's Chambers], MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and Prisons who have been working round the clock to manage this situation.” This, compared to the way the government handled the SMRT train breakdowns in December 2011 (which probably caused much more of an interruption to “essential services” than the strike) where LTA went as far as to say that it shared some of the blame!

With all the emphasis on dealing with this “illegal strike”, the most crucial questions have been forgotten: what are the conditions under which the workers have to work? Is it really fair to pay people differently simply on the basis of nationality? How easy or difficult is it for workers to seek redress for their grievances? If the current unions are no longer perceived to be representing the workers, is it time to review their relevance? Will we ever hear the stories of the workers branded as “hostile and aggressive” even though the strike was peaceful? Or are we all just expected to take the ministry’s word for it?

Instead all we’re reminded of is the stick waved in all our faces: don’t strike. Look at how serious the consequences are. Look at how we’ll deal with you. Remember, this is Singapore. Zero tolerance. Amidst all these fierce warnings we sink back into apathy and inaction, and employers get away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist (if anything).

Some will think that this episode only had to do with foreign workers, but the events of the bus strike is so much more than that. Because if this is how the Singapore system works against workers, ultimately Singaporeans will suffer too.