“Clear your desk, pack your things and get out by the end of the week.”
Of course, the termination letter Khelmi Famri, 49, received from his former employer that day did not use those specific words, but it read that way to him.
It was clear. The architectural firm where Khelmi had worked as a technical consultant for the last two and a half years wanted him to leave within the week.
The management stated poor performance as the reason for his termination. The explanation confused Khelmi as he successfully handled big projects for the company.
But his fate was sealed; the company’s management had made up their minds and Khelmi had to go.
Khelmi kept it cool. But his wife of 20 years was worried about their livelihood. It was in the middle of 2020 and Singapore was fighting an all-out battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
What made things worse for Khelmi was finding out that the company had not confirmed his employment since he joined them in 2018. He was still on probation when he was terminated.
“I didn’t realise I was still on probation. I thought probations usually end after three months. So that’s why I think when the [COVID-19] pandemic struck, they decided to terminate me,” said Khelmi.
Union Steps In
It was his union, Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU), that helped Khelmi bring the issue up to the company’s management.
After negotiations, BATU managed to get Khelmi compensation of one month of his salary for the termination.
“After the union negotiated with them, the company still wanted me to write and ask for the compensation, which they eventually gave … I’m thankful for the support the union has given me. As a union member, whenever we come forward with our problems, the union will always be there to help us find a solution,” said Khelmi.
However, Khelmi’s problems didn’t end when he was given compensation. He still needed a job.
Retrenchments were looming, and getting a job was becoming more difficult.
“I wasn’t worried, I was quite calm even though I knew the labour market wasn’t doing well. I had a feeling that everything would have been fine,” said Khelmi.
Again, his union stepped in to assist with Khelmi’s search for new employment.
BATU eventually linked Khelmi up with the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) who offered him a contract to be a Safe Management Measures Inspector for six months – something that Khelmi was more than keen to take up.
His new job requires him to ensure that COVID-19 safety measures are carried out correctly at construction sites.
“As part of what I do now, is to ensure that workers at the construction sites adhere to safety measures, that they check-in whenever they enter the sites, that they take their temperatures, and that they strictly follow safe distancing while working,” he said.
Khelmi’s contract is supposed to expire in February 2021. However, he recently received news that BCA would be extending his contract till August 2021.
Comparing what he used to do with his current job, Khelmi said the differences are plenty, but there are similarities too.
“As a consultant, I was mostly in the office drawing plans. But I used to do compliance too at my previous job and had even worked with BCA and other authorities. So that part of the job I think is not foreign to me,” he said.
Plans for the Future
Khelmi admits that he has no plans once his contract expires. He simply hopes the economy will pick up in the year to come so that workers like him can find more employment opportunities.
A firm believer in the work of the unions, Khelmi advises workers to become union members.
“I hope my story can shed some light on what unions can do to help us. Join the union if you can. Join a unionised company. Of course, many think they don’t need the unions when times are good, but when we are struggling, that’s when we see the benefit of becoming a union member,” said Khelmi.