A statistical analysis of the SMRT strike? – Balancing Growth, Foreigners & Meritocracy

I refer to the articles “Pay rise for Chinese drivers stays at $25” and “SMRT bus driver jailed six weeks over strike” (Straits Times, Dec 4).

A great deal has been written about the SMRT drivers’ strike.

I thought it may be interesting to try to do an analysis of the issue from a statistical perspective.

Bus drivers’ low basic wage?

According to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Report on wages 2007 and 2012,the Median Monthly Basic Wage of bus drivers was only $1,000 and $1,261 in 2007 and 2011, respectively.

This means that the median basic wage of bus drivers only increased by about 26 per cent in the four years from 2007 to 2011.

Low real basic wage growth?

After adjusting for inflation, I estimate the real increase in the basic wage was only about two per cent per annum.

Drivers earn 25% below median wage?

In this connection, Christopher Tan of the Straits Times wrote in his article “Vital to raise appeal of bus-driving as a career” (Nov 30), “According to statistics, the basic starting monthly pay of a Singapore bus driver was less than $1,400 before adjustments were made this year. With overtime and allowances, it rises to $1,800. That is significantly below the national median wage of $2,925 of full-time employed residents last year.

After this year’s pay adjustment, a driver in his first year can expect, with overtime, around $2,240 a month – still below the national median.

So it is clear to see why bus-driving is still not an aspirational career for many Singaporeans. Fewer than 4,000 Singaporeans drive buses for SBS Transit and SMRT, compared with about 40,000 who drive taxis.“

With the latest median wage of full-time workers at $3,000, a bus driver after the recent pay increase, still earns about 25 per cent less than the national median wage.

Singaporeans’ low real wage growth?

So, the root of the issue which arguably culminated in the SMRT strike, is that as the statistics appear to indicate (“Statistical evidence of age discrimination against older workers?”) that many Singaporeans are not only getting very low pay like bus drivers, but worse still, their real wage growth may have been negative or very low in the last decade or so.

Strike in the heart?

For many of these Singaporeans, they may not have gone on strike, but arguably in a sense, their hearts may already be on strike.

Higher gross wages?

As many writers have pointed out quoting several sources, the recently increased gross wage of the bus drivers, may be attributed to having to work six days instead of five, not being paid for the time spent to prepare to start their buses and end shift servicing, longer work hours which may actually mean a drop in their basic wage per hour, etc.

China drivers 25% cheaper than Singaporeans?

On the matter of the SMRT China workers’ wages, after adding the $275 a month for cost of accomodation and utilities bills, and $240 foreign workers’ levy to their basic pay of $1,075, gives a total of $1,590.

This is still about 16 per cent cheaper than Singaporean bus drivers whose pay is $1,885 ($1,625 plus 16 per cent employer CPF contribution).

If we factor in the fact that the China bus drivers only get one month’s bonus for their entire two-year contract against the Singaporeans’ yearly bonus, they may actually be even cheaper, at about 20 per cent.

If we factor in overtime pay, and the fact that the Chinese drivers’ basic pay is lower, they may even be cheaper, at about 25 per cent.

Increasing foreign workers’ levy, don’t work?

What the above may show is that our policy of increasing the foreign worker levy to encourage employers to employ Singaporeans may not work, because employers may simply hire foreigners by paying them lower wages, such that the total costs may still be much lesser than Singaporeans.

Depress Singaporeans’ wages?

This in turn may put pressure on Singaporeans’ wages.

More reveneue?

Arguably, the only one who gains may be the Government from the increased foreign worker levy revenue.

No NS, no maternity leave?

In addition to the above, employers do not have to contend with the costs and hassle of national service for male Singaporeans and maternity leave (foreign work permit holders) for female Singaporeans.

No turnover problems?

What may be the greatest unlevel playing field to the disadvantage of Singaporean workers, is perhaps hinted by Christopher Tan’s article which said “In 2008, even the Malaysians were not enough to fill the sector – one that faces an annual attrition rate of about 15 per cent”.

Employers like bus companies, do not have to worry about turnover and attrition when they employ foreign workers, because they cannot resign during their typical two-year contract.

Odds stacked against Singaporeans?

With all the above odds stacked against Singaporean workers, is it any wonder that some employers may prefer to hire foreigners.

More”heart strikers”?

Unless all stakeholders like the labour movement and tripartite alliance address the issues above, an increasing number of Singaporeans may be striking in their hearts!

With reference to the article “PM defends three core principles of Singapore” (Straits Times, Dec 4), I think we may need to reflect on whether our relentless quest for growth through the huge influx of foreigners may have undermined the principle of meritocracy.

How can a true meritocracy function in an “ünlevel playing field”environment, whereby foreigners may have an unfair advantage over Singaporeans?

Leong Sze Hian


About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as the president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), Hotel Mumbai (associate producer), invited to speak more than 200 times in about 40 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of 2 countries. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.