ACTIVISTS and lawyers at a public forum yesterday spoke strongly of how migrant workers here still face discrimination.

This came a day after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) dismissed allegations of police abuse by two former SMRT bus drivers involved in a strike last November.

At the afternoon forum, held in Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar and attended by about 50 people, civil society members said many migrant workers still received unequal pay and were not protected by trade unions enough.

"Discrimination by nationality is still present," said social worker Jolovan Wham of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economic. He said SMRT continues to pay its drivers at different rates, according to which country they come from.

Lawyer Choo Zheng Xi also said that temporary and contract workers are sometimes excluded from the scope of collective agreements that trade unions enter into with companies. This means that they do not receive the fruits of the unions' collective bargaining.

Last year, in November, SMRT bus drivers from China went on an illegal strike over their living conditions and wages, which were lower than that of their Malaysian colleagues.

As they were not union members, four were charged under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act instead of the Trade Unions Act, which could have come with a lighter penalty.

Speakers at the forum made little reference to MHA's statement, released on Saturday, which said investigations into allegations made by former bus drivers He Junling, 32, and Liu Xiangying, 33, that they were slapped, punched and threatened in police custody, were baseless.

The pair pleaded guilty on Feb 25 for their roles in the strike and were sentenced to jail. Both have since served their time and were deported to China.

The allegations of abuse first surfaced in January in a documentary by film-maker Lynn Lee, who interviewed the two.

MHA pointed out that prior to that, neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse despite having had many opportunities to do so.

The Internal Affairs Office (IAO) also took statements from the two Chinese men in February, in the presence of their lawyers. MHA said those statements were found to be inconsistent on the details of the alleged abuses.

When the IAO met the pair again later, both He and Liu retracted their statements.

Their lawyers, Mr Choo and Mr Mark Goh, both speakers at yesterday's forum, said yesterday that they were not present when He and Liu retracted their statements.

The lawyers said they had not been informed about the meetings. They also did not know why He and Liu retracted their statements.

"I was only informed that they had interviewed him, that he had retracted his statements, after his interview with the IAO in prison," said Mr Choo, who acted for He.

Yesterday, Ms Lee also posted on her website, in response to MHA's statement and media queries. She questioned whether He and Liu were told to seek legal advice before retracting their allegations.

Ms Lee said she has also written to the Attorney-General's Chambers to clarify if it is considering taking action against her for releasing the videos in which the allegations were made.

When contacted, MHA referred to its earlier statement.