BUS operators are turning to China for drivers as more Singaporeans here shun the job, complaining of irregular hours and low pay.
This is the first time SBS Transit and SMRT are looking beyond Singapore and Malaysia in their efforts to hire more drivers.
SMRT's first batch of 34 drivers from China arrived in January. It has hired about 100 to boost its pool of 1,700, 80 per cent of whom are Singaporeans.
Meanwhile, SBS is bringing in 20 such drivers to start work soon on two-year contracts.
SBS Transit spokesman Tammy Tan said that if its first batch of bus captains from China performs well, it might hire more of them and also consider drivers from other countries.
It currently has 5,200 drivers, 75 per cent of whom are Singaporeans or permanent residents.
For both bus operators, Malaysians make up the rest of the drivers.
Both companies said they are turning to China as they find it increasingly difficult to hire Singaporeans.
It is a problem that has surfaced in the past.
In 2005, the basic pay of bus drivers was raised from $936 to about $1,200 to get more Singaporeans to take up the job.
In addition, as part of a job redesign programme - a larger initiative by the labour movement to get Singaporeans to take up jobs they once shunned - drivers were renamed bus captains, to improve their self-esteem.
The measures worked initially, as the number of Singaporeans signing up rose.
But although salaries have risen since then - SBS Transit says its bus captains earn between $1,600 and $3,500 a month now - hiring Singaporeans is getting tougher.
National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) general secretary Fang Chin Poh said the revised salaries are still not attractive enough for most Singaporeans, especially given the long and irregular hours.
Bus drivers usually work 10 to 12 hours a day, including overtime, said Mr Fang, a bus captain with SBS Transit for 28 years.
Those who are on the morning shift have to start work at 4am or earlier, while drivers on the night shift get back home at about 2am or later, he said.
They also work a six-day week, and their one day off is not fixed. Breaks between bus trips are usually 10 to 15 minutes, added Mr Fang.
'It is a tough job. Not only do you have to drive and keep a look-out for other vehicles, you have to take care of commuters too,' he said.
NTWU president Lau Lye Hock noted that with more jobs being created by the booming economy, Singaporeans have more job choices now.
Driving a taxi is more attractive than driving a bus, for instance, because the hours are flexible, said Mr Lau.
For its part, the union is encouraging older bus captains to continue working if they are able to, instead of retiring.
But Mr Fang acknowledges that as time goes by, it is likely that Singaporeans will see more bus drivers from China.
Besides the lack of interest from Singaporeans, China drivers also come cheaper, he said.
When contacted, SBS Transit said it is still finalising salaries for its China bus captains, while SMRT declined to give figures.
Before they hit the road, the new hires will be given lessons to improve their grasp of English, said the bus operators.
They will also get other training, including service route familiarisation, customer service and how to handle local road conditions.
One major change for the new bus captains from China: They will have to keep to the left-hand side of the road when driving, instead of to the right as they do in China.