Though bigger companies may grab headlines during retrenchments, liquidations or business closures, smaller companies often go under the radar under similar circumstances.
While their workforce may be smaller, the anxiety workers experience is comparable, if not worse – seeing how smaller companies often have less capital than larger corporations and are unlikely to have attractive retrenchment payouts.
So when the five older workers of How Yu Pte Ltd – a garment accessories supplier – learned that their company was closing, they were naturally anxious.
Fortunately, with a little assistance from the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management @ National Trades Union Congress (TADM@NTUC), they managed to reach an amenable settlement with their employers before the company officially closed their doors on 31 October 2023.
The Early Days
How Yu was established by two school friends, Ng Kiang Tong and Yeo Eng How, both of whom are now 66, in 1981.
As their business grew over the years, so did their workforce. There were those who came and left and those who came and stayed.
Those who stayed to the company’s final days included Kiang Tong’s brother, Alex Ng, who joined the company in 1984. Helen Yeo and Tay Bee Lay joined the company in 1989 and 1990. Tan Mui Lee came on board in 1997, with Ng Poh Mei joining the team in 2003.
Business continued to flourish, with the two partners expanding their business portfolios to overseas markets.
When Things Go Sour
No one knows exactly when the two owners’ relationship deteriorated, but it was something that the workers saw coming.
Eventually, Kiang Tong and Eng How’s differences in running the business made them conclude that they were better off going their separate ways.
But even that led to more disagreements between the two partners.
As there was no formal contract between the five workers and the company, they disputed how much the workers should be compensated and who should be eligible.
With over 150 years of service combined, any change to the compensatory amount – say from 0.5 months to 0.75 months for every year of service – would have resulted in tens of thousands of dollars worth of difference.
The situation dragged on for weeks. With no solution in sight, Mui Lee confided in a fellow tenant of the Textile Centre at Jalan Sultan, where the company was located.
“Over the years, I have got to know many other people working in this building, even those working in the union office,” she shared, gesturing towards the upper floors.
The tenant suggested that Mui Lee approach TADM@NTUC for assistance, seeing how she was a union member, even though the company was not unionised.
TADM@NTUC Steps In
Mui Lee was linked up with case officer Karen Lee. After understanding the situation, she reached out to both partners, including Eng How, now based overseas.
She said: “It was quite a challenge as the two [partners] were no longer on talking terms. But these older workers had dedicated many years to working for the company. Getting re-employed would not be easy for them.
“I told them [the partners] that they really needed to look into their hearts to do what was right for their employees.”
Additionally, Karen also reached out and convinced the other four workers to sign up for union membership, so that she would be able to represent them all as a group.
After several rounds of negotiations, from July to October, an agreement was finally reached whereby both partners agreed to pay $132,000 in retrenchment benefits and ex gratia payments.
Not only were the five workers relieved, but Kiang Tong – who continued to operate at the company office till its last day – shared his appreciation to TADM@NTUC for helping to amicably solve the company’s conundrum.
He said: “Regardless of our differences, as employers, we must do what is right by our workers. They have spent many years with us, and I wish them the best.
“I truly appreciate all Karen and her team have done to help my workers get what they deserve.”
Need advice for managing employment or payment-related disputes?
Union members can visit TADM@NTUC. There is no administrative fee, and members can file a claim for up to $30,000 ($20,000 for non-union members)