Tuesday, 7 May 2013

SMRT union nearly went on strike in 2003 under Saw Phaik Hwa

In an interview with the media, former Minister and NTUC boss Lim Boon Heng revealed that unionised SMRT rail workers nearly went on strike in Sep 2003. This was the time when Malaysian-born Saw Phaik Hwa was the CEO of SMRT. She was the President and CEO of SMRT from Dec 2002 to Jan 2012. Prior to that, she worked in DFS duty free retail chain for 19 years, rising from the bottom to later become the Regional President of DFS, before she was retrenched in 2002.

Mr Lim said that in 2003, SMRT management wanted to make up for a sharp reduction in the company’s investment income that year by freezing wages. This meant that SMRT workers would not get their 3 per cent annual increment which they were entitled to according to the 3-year-long collective agreement. In other words, SMRT management was prepared to rescind the agreement they signed with the union. The union tried to negotiate with SMRT but the management were not willing to back down.

The workers then decided to take a stand with Mr Lim’s approval. Some 3,000 unionised SMRT workers went ahead to conduct a secret ballot to decide on whether they would go on strike. 80% voted yes. The workers were angry with SMRT management because management were not respecting the collective agreement they had signed with the workers and had decided to freeze wages. A day was even decided by the union leaders to go on strike.

After the balloting was done, Mr Lim gave word to the Ministry of Transport officials and told them to talk to SMRT management one last time. That same day, faced with a possible historic strike, SMRT management gave in.

Years later, sometime in 2009-2010, about 100 non-unionised PRC SMRT bus drivers protested over benefit issues. They were already unhappy with the long working hours, poor living conditions and the low pay they were getting. The last straw came when some of them did not get their promised bonus after fulfilling their 2-year contract. When they asked SMRT for it, they were told off as SMRT claimed they had taken one too many MCs. However, PRC drivers disputed it.

The PRC drivers threatened to go on strike. The ugly scenario was avoided when Saw Phaik Hwa came out to pacify the PRC drivers. She paid $1000 bonus to those who renewed their contract, which was a welcome situation since foreign workers in many cases have to pay employers illegally in order to get their contracts renewed for another 2 years to continue to work in Singapore. Work permits of foreign workers are generally valid for only 2 years.
And in Nov last year, some 200 non-unionised PRC SMRT bus drivers actually went on strike (‘Breaking: 200 SMRT PRC bus drivers go on strike!‘). They were unhappy with their salary and dormitory conditions. Five of the ring leaders have since been convicted, serving jail terms of between six and seven weeks for instigating the illegal strike.

Even though last year’s strike happened under the new SMRT CEO, Desmond Kuek, who took over from Saw Phaik Hwa, he only started work in SMRT in Oct last year. Hence, the unhappiness of the PRC SMRT bus drivers actually festered during Saw’s time under her management.

However, despite some of her management hiccups, that’s not to say Saw Phaik Hwa didn’t have any supporters. Certainly, SMRT shareholders like Temasek Holdings would love her very much for helping to squeeze more profits and therefore, dividends for shareholders, out from SMRT.

According to its annual report, SMRT, which is controlled by Temasek Holdings with close to 55% shareholdings, generated very good dividends for its shareholders under Saw Phaik Hwa:

Gross dividend per share
Year Total Dividend (cents) Temasek Holdings received ($)
FY2011 8.50 70,074,003
FY2010 8.50 70,074,003
FY2009 7.75 63,891,002
FY2008 7.75 63,891,002
FY2007 7.25 59,769,002
FY2006 7.00 57,708,002
FY2005 6.50 53,586,002
FY2004 4.50 37,098,001
FY2003 3.10 25,556,401
FY2002 2.80 23,083,201

In any case, Ms Saw is no longer with SMRT. She resigned from SMRT last year and is now the CEO of Auric Pacific which owns Delifrance, Sunshine bread, Topone and Food Junction. As CEO of SMRT, Saw was paid a salary of $1.85 million in 2010 and was said to own a Ferrari and a Mercedes-Benz 500. In her resignation filing with SGX, she disclosed that she owned 1,084,100 ordinary shares in SMRT Corporation

Source: TRE website

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