SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch decried Singapore's prosecution of mainland Chinese bus drivers behind the first major strike in the wealthy city-state since 1986, calling on Thursday for the charges to be dropped and discrimination to be ended.
Four Chinese men, charged with inciting a two-day walkout by dozens of their colleagues last week, asked for lawyers on Thursday in a case that highlights tensions over immigration in Singapore and the treatment of foreign workers.
A fifth Chinese driver, who pleaded guilty and was not represented by a lawyer, was sentenced to six weeks in jail on Monday. Singapore, a tightly regulated financial center with no minimum wage, deported 29 others to China on Sunday.
"Singapore defies basic labor rights by criminalizing migrant workers for a work stoppage," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"It then adds insult to injury by justifying nationality-based discrimination in pay and working conditions, and restricting foreign workers' rights to form or lead a union to do something about it."
The Ministry of Manpower did not respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese drivers staged their walkout over living conditions and disparities in pay with their Singaporean and Malaysian peers.
Workers in essential services in Singapore are barred from striking without giving 14 days' notice and the government deters any kind of labor unrest that might hurt investment.
Singaporeans, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, were firmly in support of punishment for the workers but also blamed the bus company, a poll showed.
The four drivers appeared in court on Thursday but their case was adjourned until Wednesday. Bail was set at S$10,000 ($8,200) for three of them and at S$20,000 for one man who faces an extra charge.
They face a maximum fine of S$2,000 and/or a sentence of up to a year in prison. The other drivers who took part in the strike would get police warnings but be allowed to stay and work in Singapore, the government said last week.
Singapore's long-ruling government, hit by its worst election result last year, is trying to defuse public anger over soaring costs and an influx of immigrants. At the same time, the construction, hospitality and transport sectors demand foreign workers because many Singaporeans do not want those jobs.
"Sadly, the government is drawing the wrong conclusion from the bus drivers' strike." Robertson of Human Rights Watch said.
"Rather than prosecuting migrant workers who speak up, the government should ensure that all workers have equal rights."
Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor said the strike was "a wake-up call" for companies to be more vigilant and put in place good management practices.
In another labor protest, two Chinese workers climbed to the top of a construction crane on Thursday and refused to come down. The Straits Times newspaper said they were due to return to China but were owed one month's pay.
($1 = 1.2184 Singapore dollars)
Editing by Robert Birsel