Asked if he considers himself an activist, Chua Qwong Meng laughed and said no.
“I am not doing this on a full-time basis,” he said of his advocacy for labor rights in Singapore. “If people come to me for help, or if I witness something, I will help. I don’t know, I think it’s my character. I don’t like to see people abuse power or bully.”
Chua was once a driver with SBS Transit, Singapore’s largest scheduled bus operator. The 63 year old is now spearheading a lawsuit against SBS with 12 other drivers over what they claim are unfair work practices such as unpaid overtime and an inadequate number of rest days.
As the first person to relentlessly pursue such a labor rights case, Chua has emboldened others to speak up and become an unofficial leader amongst fellow workers who want to understand and publicly demand their rights.
Chua first noticed something was amiss in mid-2019, after a series of work disputes compelled him to start monitoring his payslips. He eventually saw the amount he was paid did not correspond with the number of hours he worked. Speaking with other drivers, the group realised they were all facing similar issues.
In the Republic of Singapore, there are no independent work unions. Instead there is the tripartism partnership, a collaboration of three government-affiliated organisations including the Ministry of Manpower, The National Trades Union Congress and The Singapore National Employers Federation. In the event of workplace disputes, employees are encouraged to resolve the issues through the tripartite.
If people come to me for help, or if I witness something, I will help…I don’t like to see people abuse power or bully
Chua did as he was supposed to, reaching out to the relevant tripartite members, only to find himself shuffled from one organisation to another, each time receiving no satisfactory explanation or closure. After nearly a year without progress, he took the dispute to court.
“I wanted to settle things in a low-profile way, peacefully,” Chua said. “We are drivers, we know that if we go to court, the cost is very high. We know we can’t afford to pay the lawyer fee because Singapore’s lawyer fees are very high. But we are forced to do that.”
The 13 drivers are represented by M Ravi, a prominent Singapore human rights lawyer. Of the 13 drivers, 10 are Malaysian citizens who returned to their home country after their employers failed to renew their Singapore work permits.
Besides pursuing the lawsuit and working part-time as a COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Test assistant, Chua frequently checks in with his Malaysian ex-colleagues and shares updates about the lawsuit’s progress to keep up their morale. He also volunteers to help other low-wage workers facing similar workplace issues, primarily focused on salary disputes, workplace injuries and rest days.
Those who approach him for help are friends, or friends of friends, who perceive Chua as a voice for workers’ rights. He spends time learning their situations and helping write letters for those wishing to lodge complaints with the Ministry of Manpower. Most speak with him simply to learn more about their workplace rights in Singapore.
“I think the main issue is that a lot of workers in the working-class do not fully understand the employment law, so they are confused. They also don’t know who to look for,” Chua explained, adding that there are unequal power dynamics as foreign workers risk being fired and sent back to their countries if they lodge complaints.
Chua recounts the story of a friend who suffered a serious workplace injury but the company refused to compensate him for the medical bills and even threatened him about speaking up. When Chua offered to help bring the case to the manpower ministry, the friend politely declined his assistance, explaining he did not want to get in trouble and reminding Chua that he was not Singaporean. Eventually he resigned and returned to Malaysia.
Cases like this are not isolated. Jolovan Wham, a social worker who has spent 20 years focused on migrant workers’ rights in Singapore, emphasised that migrants in particular face barriers to speaking about work conditions. Besides fear of repatriation, workers living in company-sponsored dormitories may be uncomfortable filing complaints against employers providing them with accommodation.
“Most of the time they are very scared,” Jolovan said. “There is a lot of disempowerment and concerns that they may lose their jobs.”
Chua does not have to worry about repatriation as a Singaporean citizen, but his actions still require a lot of courage and assertiveness, Jolovan said.
Navigating a convoluted union network, which Jolovan described as “hostile to workers’ rights,” is a huge mountain to climb. Many workers, including some with 12-hour shifts, do not have the luxury of time or the physical and mental energy to attend mediation sessions for workplace disputes.
In two decades as an activist, Jolovan said he had not seen significant improvements in workers’ rights and conditions in Singapore.
In 2012, Jolovan was involved in Singapore’s first strike in more than 25 years, during which more than a hundred bus drivers protested against unfair salaries and other workplace issues. He helped with legal representation and online awareness campaigns presenting the bus drivers’ perspectives, which Jolovan said the mainstream media did not represent.
The fear and exploitation are so normalised that people feel they can’t do anything about it
In a country where public assemblies are illegal without a permit, strikes remain rare. But nine years later, history seems to be repeating itself in a different form with the SBS lawsuit, which Jolovan said is a landmark case.
“When I talk to some of the drivers and workers, I get the sense that there is a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of unhappiness, exploitation going on, but there’s also so much fear,” Jolovan said. “The fear and exploitation are so normalised that people feel they can’t do anything about it. That’s why this legal case has very significant implications in putting a spotlight on these issues that have been happening for a very long time and that is so entrenched.”
The high court hearing for the SBS lawsuit is scheduled to commence in November 2021. In the meantime, most of the 13 drivers juggle several part-time jobs to make ends meet. One is still employed by SBS and another has been unemployed for several months due to a medical issue.
Chua continues to dedicate a significant amount of his time to helping fellow workers with their cases, empowering Singapore’s workforce to understand and demand their rights.
“I want people to know. Actually I am not interested in politics. I am nobody,” Chua said. “I just want to have a fair equal [system], regardless of where you are from. When you come to Singapore, we must have fair treatment, respect.”