With the recent weaker economic figures and sombre market outlook as a backdrop, I expect layoffs/retrenchments this year and in the next few years ahead to affect more Professionals, Managers and Executives (PMEs) than before partly due to the workforce having an exponential increase in the number of PMEs but also because the likely affected sectors, jobs and companies have a higher concentration of PMEs.
The latest 2015 Department of Statistics labour market figures revealed that we now have about 738,200 resident PMEs in Singapore, which is an increase of almost 100,000 as compared to 2014. In short, more than one in three of our local workforce are PMEs. This is in part due to a recent re-classification of semi-PME or associate PME positions to full PME jobs.
I recall almost 15 years ago when I started out in NTUC as an Industrial Relations Officer trying to convince PMEs to join our unions, they often lament the little that we (unions) could do for them. I dare say things have evolved since. We amended the Industrial Relations Act in 2002 to allow for limited representation of junior PMEs. That was a good starting point, but the tipping point came during the last three years.
More PMEs covered under Employment Act
In April 2014, the Employment Act was amended, availing PMEs earning up to $4,500 ($4,500 covers about 50 per cent of the resident PMEs in Singapore at the time the amendments were tabled) to recourse through the Act (minus Part IV of the Act which covers namely Hours of Work, Overtime and Retrenchment Benefits).
All unions can collectively represent PMEs from April 2015
In April 2015, the Industrial Relations Act was amended. With the amendments, PMEs can now be collectively represented by all unions (not just executive unions).
Both these amendments were landmark and watershed in that these were marked shifts since the laws were promulgated in the 1960s – which traditionally, did not generously extend protection to PMEs.
The road towards these two changes, though seemingly simple, was by no means an easy task. It took tireless lobbying, convincing and persuasion of tripartite partners especially the employers as they have enjoyed a pro-business labour legislation landscape for many years and were not prepared to bite the bullet to let go of their rights and benefits.
What we have today in a nutshell, is better protection for PMEs and greater prerogatives of PMEs in the workplace. There are five things you need to know:
- Whether in a unionised or non-unionised company, PMEs earning up to $4,500 can seek recourse for a variety of statutory entitlements and protection within the Employment Act (minus Part IV);
- Whether in a unionised or non-unionised company, you can still consult a lawyer and litigate if you have a workplace or employment dispute but bear in mind the costs involved;
- In a non-unionised company, if you are a union member and a PME earning a monthly basic salary not exceeding $4,500, you can seek assistance to have the case undergo tripartite mediation at no cost but limited to issues concerning a breach of contract, unpaid salaries or retrenchment benefits payable (see below on proposed expansion of tripartite mediation);
- In a unionised company, PMEs who are able to be represented (whether individually or collectively) can bring their employment/industrial disputes via the union to the Ministry of Manpower for Conciliation and to escalate the case up to a public hearing before the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) before a High Court judge who presides as the President of the IAC. Alternatively, other forms of industrial action can also be undertaken in the alternative to an action before the IAC.
- All PMEs can drop by, call or e-mail the NTUC PME Centre for advice or visit our U PME portal at ntuc.org.sg/pme if you need any advice, support or assistance in the four areas of “Protection, Progression, Placement and Privileges”. We are not shy to remind that union members do have greater avenues of recourse, with more to come.
PMEs can look forward to settling issues via the Employment Claims Tribunal soon
In the same vein, we are also expecting a slew of new and positive changes in legislation in the latter half of this year to better protect PMEs in Singapore. This will come in the form of the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) which I anticipate will hear both statutory and contractual employment claims. I expect it will take shape very much like the Small Claims Tribunal and with a claims limit as it may well be free to take up an action (or at most a small administrative fee) in the spirit of economical and accessible access to justice.
PME Union Members can tap on the Tripartite Mediation Framework for more protection
To ensure that the relevance of NTUC and the Labour Movement is not diluted with the setting up of the ECT, NTUC lobbied for the Tripartite Mediation Framework (TMF), which is availed only to union members, to expand beyond the ambit and jurisdiction of normal ECT claims.
That said, I do agree that there are a few questions which we need to firmly address with the tripartite partners in light of the current economic and employment landscape in respect of retrenchments and lay-offs of PMEs. They are:
(i) NTUC wants better protection and benefits for retrenched PMEs
Who to be retrenched? Who are entitled to retrenchment benefits? When should retrenchment exercises be carried out? What amount of retrenchment benefits should be paid to PMEs?
Should we expressly provide for the quantum of retrenchment or severance in individual employment contracts or union/management collective agreements (unionised companies with collective agreements)? We currently have tripartite guidelines in the form of a Code of Good Industrial Relations Practice (2004) and the TAFEP guidelines when carrying out retrenchments, which can be persuasive if a case gets escalated. We have also successfully helped PME union members to pursue their retrenchment payouts via Ministry of Manpower and even to IAC.
I know of some of our unionised companies who have secured one month per year of service for their PME union members in their Collective Agreements and other companies from past retrenchment exercise payouts. However, I am concerned as retrenchment quantum has not been addressed in a widespread manner by the tripartite partners in respect of PMEs.
Notwithstanding, in the IAC hearing(s) which I represented and submitted on behalf of United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) for union members in Sealing Technologies in September 2012 to get a one month per year of service payout, Justice Chan Seng Onn (in his capacity as President IAC) remarked that we need to look at the ‘industry practice’ to ascertain the amount of retrenchment benefits to compensate the worker. It is also instructive to look at the rationale for retrenchment payout. In that case, the verdict was a payout of one month per year of service as it was an industry/market practice.
(ii) NTUC recommends employers to give employees a reasonable Notice Period
Another area is the appropriate period of notice to be given to the affected employees. This is a particularly sticky area as in most retrenchment exercises, workers are not informed by employers till the final hour for the fear of sabotage or theft of confidential data which employees have access to. However, for unionised companies, we have always instituted a month’s notice period (in addition to the usual practice of a month’s notice period for termination of employment) to the union so that the union can negotiate the retrenchment package as well as assist the affected workers in job matching and placements. Recently, one company even gave the union way in advance of 6 months’ notice to better prepare and help the workers and to better negotiate with the union. This is what I call good industrial relations practice!
PMEs can join unions for workplace representation
Despite all that has been done and is available, till today, many PMEs still share with me that they do not know that they can be a union member or that a union can really in fact help them or can collectively represent or bargain for them. My short answer is that you can and you should but it is your prerogative whether to join or not join as a union member (Freedom of Association – a strictly guarded fundamental liberty). I leave the question to fellow PMEs to decide if they want to take up union membership (at $9 per month with other privileges) and shield themselves if not totally, at least partially for unpredictable eventualities.
This is a post by National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 24 February 2016.