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Chinese drivers protest over lower pay than Malaysian drivers

Wildcat strike by immigrant Chinese bus drivers focuses on 30% pay difference with Malaysian or Singaporean drivers

Police patrol an apartment complex where striking Chinese bus drivers had gathered to protest at being paid less than local workers. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters

An illegal strike by Chinese bus drivers in Singapore has highlighted tensions over immigration in the city-state and exposed the unfavourable treatment of lower-skilled foreign workers.

The strike, the first in the tightly regulated Asian financial centre in more than 25 years, was motivated partly by the fact that Chinese drivers are paid less than their Singaporean and Malaysian peers. The Chinese are paid S$1,075 Singapore dollars (£549) a month compared with S$1,400 for a Malaysian driver.

For the first two days of this week, buses ran late and crowded in a city that prides itself on efficiency, leading to complaints from customers.

On Monday, 171 drivers failed to turn up and 88 did not report for work on Tuesday. Most returned on Wednesday after officials from the Chinese embassy spoke to them late on Tuesday. Drivers had also face pressure from the acting manpower minister, Tan Chuan Jin, who warned them they had "crossed the line". Riot police were stationed near their hostel.

The walkout exposed xenophobic attitudes towards Chinese workers, who largely do menial, low-status work deemed unappealing by locals. A reader on the Today newspaper website calling himself Leonard Low wrote: "This is Singapore NOT China. If you cannot follow the law of the land please go back to your own country and strike."

Another, James Teo, wrote: "Those who broke our laws of assembly and illegal strikes must be charged in court, fined, jailed or both, deported and banned from ever coming to Singapore."

There were similar comments on Tan's Facebook page, with Bao Heng commenting: "These [Chinese] drivers don't deserve the same salary and benefits. Many Singaporeans would agree with me that Malaysians drivers are safer drivers." In the case of SMRT Corp, one of Singapore's two bus companies, Chinese nationals account for about 450 of the 2,000 or so drivers on its payroll. The island of 5.2 million people relies on hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries such as China, Indonesia and Bangladesh, particularly in the construction, hospitality and transport sectors. The influx has strained public services and sparked a backlash, with accusations that foreign workers are stealing jobs, pushing up housing costs and crowding public transport.

Such sentiments were blamed for Singapore's ruling People's Action party receiving its lowest share of the vote – 60% – since 1965 in elections last May.

Singapore, which had its last major industrial action in 1986, by shipyard workers, has no minimum wage and prohibits workers in public transport and other essential services from going on strike without giving notice of 14 days. SMRT, which said the strike affected about 5% of its bus services, claimed the difference in pay between the Chinese and Malaysian bus drivers was due to the Malaysians being permanent employees.

The strikers also complained that SMRT switched them to a six-day week with slightly higher pay from a five-day week that had allowed them to earn more by doing overtime.

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