Chinese bus drivers in Singapore sent to jail for organizing strike

Four Chinese bus drivers in Singapore were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven weeks for their part in a strike over unequal pay and poor living conditions late last November.

The Singapore court announced the sentences on 25 February after the four drivers suddenly agreed to plead guilty. Their trial was originally scheduled for 4 March after they had declined an earlier prosecution offer to reduce the charges against them if they agreed to plead guilty. It is unclear at present exactly why they changed their plea.

Three of the drivers, Liu Xiangying, Gao Yueqiang and Wang Xianjie, were sentenced to six weeks in prison for their role in the strike, while He Junling was given a seven week sentence after accepting the additional charge of inciting the strike by posting an online call for colleagues to stay away from work.

A total of 171 Chinese bus drivers, all employed by the state-owned Singaporean bus company SMRT, took “collective leave” on 26 November 2012.  Subsequently, 29 drivers were deported without trial, while another driver was sentenced to six weeks in jail in December for his supposedly leading role in the strike.

Lawyers for Liu Xiangying and Gao Yueqiang argued in court that their clients should receive a non-custodial sentence, or a maximum sentence of two weeks, because their involvement in the strike had been limited and the strike itself had only a caused minor disruption to transport services. It was hardly the disruption of essential services the prosecution had alleged. Moreover, they said, the defendants could in no way be characterised as the “hotheads and irresponsible leaders,” who were the original targets of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, under which the drivers were charged. Indeed the drivers had legitimate grievances which SMRT management failed to address, and as such SMRT’s role in precipitating the strike should not be ignored either.

However, the judge largely ignored these arguments, stating that: “The sentence must be of sufficient duration to signal its deterrent intent” even though the strike “may have been motivated by a sense of grievance.”

Chinese bus drivers employed at SMRT had long complained about the unequal pay structure of Singaporean, Malaysian and Chinese drivers as well as the appalling living conditions in their dormitories.

In addition to the court case, the authorities in Singapore are currently investigating complaints by two of the drivers, He Junling and Liu Xiangying, that they were physically and verbally abused by the Singapore police during their time in custody. He said in a video interview with a civil society organization in Singapore that the police had punched him in the stomach during his interrogation, while Liu said the police had threatened to “bury him in a hole” if he didn’t confess.

To read more about the problems encountered by Chinese workers in Singapore, please see our research report Hired on Sufferance: China’s migrant workers in Singapore published in 2011.

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