With savings after six years in Singapore, Yang Wu started the Qihang Consulting Center for Workers Going to Singapore. As the name suggests, this is an online agency that helps Chinese workers find jobs in the country.
Yang had been one of the millions of Chinese migrant workers overseas. By the end of 2010 they numbered 5.4 million and along with Chinese companies operating overseas contributed revenue of $7.36 billion to the economy, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
After graduating from a technical school in Fujian province, Yang traveled to Singapore with dozens of young men, hired through a local agency for foreign labor. "The agency charged each of us 20,000 yuan ($3,208)," said Yang.
However, life in Singapore was not as comfortable as many had imagined.
"Chinese people are more or less discriminated against by the locals because we take their jobs," said Yang. "For the same job, we were paid less than the locals and we sometimes needed to do extra work. About half of my friends left because of the unfair treatment. Some had only been in the country for a couple of months."
Yang was paid S$800 ($654) for his first month's work. Although the salary was nearly twice that of a recent graduate on the Chinese mainland at the time, the monthly pay of Yang's Singaporean colleagues was double that of the Chinese workers, around S$1,600.
Life after work was also tough. Yang and five compatriots squeezed into a small room of about 5 square meters so they could avoid the high rents in Singapore, which has more than 5.3 million people living on its 713 square kilometers of land.
Yang's salary, although lower than the Singaporean average, encouraged him to work hard. Meanwhile, the country's strict labor laws, including payment for overtime, also satisfied the Chinese workers. In 2011, his salary was increased to S$2,000 a month.
Security guards prevent members of a labor union from marching to the Singapore Consulate General in Hong Kong on Wednesday. The protesters were demanding the release of a Chinese bus driver who was sentenced to six weeks in prison for his involvement in Singapore's first strike for 26 years.
However, the perceived inequity felt by many Chinese workers rose to the surface on Nov 26 when 171 Chinese bus drivers working for Singapore Mass Rapid Transit Corp went on strike to express their grievance over "unequal pay and poor living conditions". The strike was later ruled illegal in accordance with Singaporean law, said the Ministry of Manpower in an e-mail reply to questions from China Daily.
Of the five drivers taken to court, one was sentenced to six weeks in jail, while the others were released on bail of S$50,000, which was paid by local friends on Dec 6. They are due to attend the court again on Dec 12. A further 29 drivers were repatriated.
After the incident, Chinese working overseas came under fire as experts said they should have learned more about the cultures of the host countries and utilized local laws to protect their rights.
The strike was called because of an "unequal increase in pay", according to a forum posting by one of the workers. The incident occurred after drivers from Malaysia were given a monthly increase of S$275, while the Chinese drivers were given S$100. However, the transit company insisted, "the existing compensation and contract terms are fair".
The transit company said employees were hired under different terms. Singaporeans, permanent residents of the country and Malaysian employees were hired on permanent contracts, while Chinese employees were hired on two-year contracts, renewable after completion of their tenure.
Workers gathered outside a dormitory area as negotiations with striking bus drivers took place inside the building on Nov 26.
The full monthly increase in salary would therefore be S$100, a 10 percent increase in starting pay for Chinese drivers, according to the transit company.
"When you take into account the provision of transport, accommodation and utilities that the company bears, your (the Chinese drivers) compensation terms, when compared with employees from Malaysia who are not provided with accommodation by the company, are fair and equitable. Our Malaysian employees either go back to their homes in Malaysia after work, or rent their own accommodation," it said.
On Dec 9, Teo Chee Hean, Singapore's deputy prime minister and minister for home affairs, told the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that the strike showed the country relied heavily on foreign workers, but that it would cost more to recruit Singaporeans into the service industries. However, Teo also said employees must use lawful and appropriate channels to express their grievances or join a trade union to resolve disputes.
As the Strait Times reported on Dec 4, almost 80 percent of 313 randomly polled Singaporeans aged 15 and older said the transport operator should bear some of the responsibility for not managing the grievances of its bus drivers effectively, while 74 percent said the Chinese bus drivers should have gone through the proper channels to air their grievances.
Some 78 percent of those polled also agreed that if the bus drivers from China were found to have breached Singaporean law, they should be punished to the full extent of the law. Singapore has zero tolerance of illegal strikes.
Despite all the complaints from overseas labor, such as Yang, Singapore remains the top destination for Chinese working overseas. More than 80 percent of the 2,000 residents in overseas employment from Dingzhou, Hebei province, are trying to make their fortunes in Singapore, according to the Dingzhou Bureau of Civil Affairs.
"About 20 years ago, African countries were the most desirable places for Chinese to work. But because robberies affected them a lot on that continent, Southeast Asian nations gradually gained popularity among our clients," said Zhen Xinguang, manager of the Dingzhou branch of Jianghai International Economic and Technical Cooperation Co.
Zhen's company recruits about 100 workers, including carpenters and drivers, for Singaporean employers every month.
"After six months training at a vocational school in the city of Baoding in our province, all applicants have to take an exam to determine if they have the correct skills for the job," said the company. "Each person has two chances to pass the exam and, if successful, they are then recommended for work in Singapore. Therefore, most of the training focuses on technical aspects."
Zhen said teachers at the training school don't provide information on the laws or political structures of the host countries because there isn't time to do so. He added that as most of the recruits were only educated to middle- or high-school level, they were not interested in learning about the regulations.
"As long as you can pass the exam, you can just pay a fee of 3,000 yuan and skip the courses, " said Gao Congmin, another agency staff member in Dingzhou, who had been enrolling workers for Singaporean companies for 10 years.
According to China's Regulation on Overseas Employment Agencies, agencies must provide lectures on the laws and political structures of host countries, but Yang said the agency seldom notified recruits about these factors.
"They give out a handbook, which contains details about dress codes and safety notices," he said. "We were told not to fight or to get drunk in public places, but nobody told us about our rights, nor how to hold a protest march."
"Every country has a different legal system and very few professionals study overseas labor laws, and so it's not practical to expect training centers to find qualified legal experts," said Cheng Yanyuan, professor of labor relations at Renmin University of China. "Unlike China, many countries have specific laws on strikes."
In Singapore, public transport services, such as those provided by the transit company, are listed as "essential services" under the Criminal Law Act. Workers in these essential services, such as public transport, are forbidden from taking industrial action unless they provide their employer with 14 days' notice of any intended action and comply with all other requirements.
In China, workers often go on strike without informing their employer, according to Cheng. "In their minds, their demands will be met as long as a large group of people take part in a strike or protest. That forces the employer to compromise."
"Chinese workers should ensure they gain accurate information about other countries' laws, by consulting local lawyers if they can afford it," she suggested. "If they have no idea about local labor laws, they may take radical action and go on strike. That's because they believe that 'the treatment was extremely lopsided' and that problems can be solved if a large number of workers protest together, like in China."
New system urged
"The importation of labor has been more strictly controlled since 2010 and fewer people are allowed to work in Singapore because of rising unemployment among the locals," said Yang Wu. Some experts have called for a new system to be established to monitor the overseas employment of Chinese workers.
Zhang Hong, professor of law and political science at Nanjing University of Technology, said the Philippines, a country that's provided more than 7 million overseas workers, might be a good model to follow.
The Philippines has established a system to help overseas Filipino workers. As early as 1991, the Philippine Labor Code Provision on Overseas Employment was enacted to monitor overseas employment of its citizens. Four years later, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act was passed.
In accordance with these laws, the Philippine government has established human resource centers in countries that have more than 20,000 Filipino workers. The centers are open 24 hours a day, and offer consultation and legal services. In addition, the government provides legal aid to its citizens working overseas.
By comparison, two laws passed in 2002 govern the overseas employment of Chinese citizens, including the Provisions on Overseas Employment Agencies. "There is no specific government institution to handle overseas employment," said Zhang.
"China should also establish centers to advise citizens working overseas if they are facing problems and potentially inequitable treatment, rather than adopting an inappropriate way of 'fighting back'," wrote Zhang in an academic journal last year.
"When Chinese workers are living in a foreign land, their mother country should be their strongest supporter and they would certainly turn to service centers for help," said Zhen with Jianghai.