Workers who were dismissed by Surbana Jurong for “poor performance” have shared with The Online Citizen that they were given two letters to choose from after meeting their Human Resource department on Friday, 6 January. They had to make a Hobson’s choice between a letter of termination and a letter of resignation.
Surbana Jurong Private Limited or Surbana Jurong is a newly merged entity that is a combination of Surbana International Consultants and Jurong International Holdings in 2015.
Surbana International Consultants was formerly the Building and Development Division in Singapore’s Housing and Development Board which was formed in 1960, which was then corporatised as HDBCorp in 2003 and acquired by Temasek Holdings in 2004.
Just last week, Straits Times reported that a bunch of workers were laid off by Surbana Jurong and its spokesman said that less than 0.5 per cent of its global 13,000-strong workforce had been affected.
As the meetings were held at different locations, the workers are unsure of the exact number of fellow workers who are also dismissed. We can only estimate the number of workers affected by the dismissal through the company spokesman’s rough estimate. The number of affected workers is in the “dozens” up to as many as 65 workers as it employs about 3,000 workers locally.
Despite the number of workers being laid-off, the company spokesman was quoted to have said that the dismissal is not a retrenchment exercise but “rather, a small number of poor performers were communicated with and released”
According to workers who spoke to TOC on condition of anonymity, said that they were informed on 5 January (Thursday) to meet with the HR department on Friday, the following day at 5.30pm. There was no mention of what the meeting was about.
At the meetings which were held in the respective departments, the workers are handed two letters each, a letter of termination and a letter of resignation for them to choose. All they need to do is to sign on the resignation letter for it to take effect. If one does not take the option of resignation, the company will then serve the letter of termination to the worker.
Those who were still of employable age were compelled to take up the option of resignation letter as a termination will leave a bad mark on their employment history. However, those who were over the age of 62 did not accept their dismissal and took the issue to union officials and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
According to ST’s report, workers were then represented by the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union and the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (Batu), both affiliated to NTUC.
The two unions said 18 union members were affected and their re- employment contracts were prematurely terminated.
Under the Retirement and Re-employment Act (RRA), the minimum retirement age is 62 years. Employers are not allowed to dismiss any employee below this age because of the employee’s age. Employers must offer re-employment to eligible employees who turn 62, up to age 65, to continue their employment in the organisation.
The potential loss in retrenchment benefits for workers
From 1 April 2015, an employee who has been employed in a company for at least two years, can request for retrenchment benefits if he or she is retrenched.
Retrenchments are defined as dismissal on the ground of redundancy or by reason of any reorganisation of the employer’s profession, business, trade or work. This applies to permanent employees, as well as contract workers with full contract terms of at least 6 months.
According to the workers, those who are of the age of 62 and above have been working in the company for twenty years or more, back when the company was still a statutory board under HDB.
Starting from 1 January 2017, employers must notify MOM of retrenchments within 5 working days after they notify the affected employees. MOM’s website further states that it is mandatory for employers with at least 10 employees who have retrenched 5 or more employees within any 6-month period to notify MOM of the retrenchment exercise. For those who have served five years or more, MOM stipulates that the staff be given a notice period of 4 weeks or more.
While the Employment Act does not dictate the nature or amount of such benefits and leaves it to the mutual agreement between the employee and the employer. The common practice in Singapore is to pay between 2 weeks’ to one month’s salary per year of service. This would mean a sizeable amount of retrenchment benefits that the company would have to pay out to the staff if it had label its dismissals as a retrenchment exercise.
Totally unfair for dismissed workers
Peter (not his real name), one of those who were affected by the disguised retrenchment, said that it is ridiculous for the company to do such a thing upon to workers who have been slogging for the company.
He voiced his displeasure over the statement by the company, “It is irresponsible for the company to say that the dismissed were underperforming, how can they look for a job after such news go out?” and said that if underperformance was the issue, there should have been a period of time where the employee can address the issues that the company have with him or her and not to terminate one’s service without any prior warning.
In fact, that was exactly what happened to him when his job offer failed to materialise after the statement about its laid-off workers by Surbana Jurong got out. He was supposed to receive an official confirmation of his new job just this week.
Peter further noted that the company is heartless to have made such a move given that it is nearing the Chinese New Year Festival.
However, workers are too scared to voice against the company or be identified to be speaking to the press as they feel that they have no means of seeking redress against the company’s actions.
Union and MOM keeping quiet over disguised retrenchment exercise?
In October last year, NTUC expressed concerns that employers were disguising retrenchments to circumventure labour laws. One such modus of operation listed by NTUC is terminating with poor performance cited as a reason, a curious sign of a disguised retrenchment is when the poor performance rating comes abruptly following a consistently good ratings.
In ST’s report, Batu was quoted to have said that the unions are working with Surbana on how to help the affected union members and that it is still talking with the company. TOC has since written to the union about the claims and it has yet replied. But if Batu is hearing the same thing that TOC is hearing, why is the union keeping quiet about the actions by the company and whose interest is the union and NTUC looking after?
Mr Leong Sze Hian has noted in his article that the number of dismissed workers and the workers seeking help with the unions do not match. TOC understands that is because the staff that have been dismissed are not all union workers as some are not covered under the employment act due to their executive role in the company.
However, does it mean that MOM and the unions do not voice out for their unfair treatment as they are not covered the employment act? What happened to Singaporean First?
What will MOM, unions, Ministers and MPs do?
Back in September 2016, Minister of Manpower, Lim Swee Say said in response to questions by Mr Patrick Tay, MP of West Coast GRC:
“Affected employees who encounter irresponsible retrenchment practices not in compliance with the Employment Act can approach MOM for assistance. Those not covered by the Act can approach their unions if they are union members. For non-union members, if their contract stipulates a notice period or the retrenchment benefits quantum, they have recourse through the Civil Courts. And with the setting up of the Employment Claims Tribunals in April 2017, they will have a more affordable and expeditious avenue to resolve their contractual disputes including retrenchment benefits.”
But so far TOC’s query to MOM about the treatment towards to workers has been ignored.
Given that Surbana Jurong is jointly owned by Temasek Holdings and JTC Corp in a 51-49 partnership. Will MOM, unions, labour Ministers and the MPs do anything about the apparent injustice to the workers despite the uncomfortable confrontation with a state-owned company?
And what kind of example is the company giving with such labour practices?
Minister Lim also said in Parliament on November last year that there is no evidence of irresponsible retrenchment.
There is no clear evidence that irresponsible retrenchment is on the rise. Under the Employment Act, an employee who has served less than 2 years is not entitled to retrenchment benefits. For those who have served more than 2 years, payment of retrenchment benefits is mandatory if it is specified in their individual employment contracts or the collective agreements negotiated by their unions.
Even so, based on the last survey conducted in 2013, 9 out of 10 companies with more than 25 employees do pay retrenchment benefits. The prevailing norm then was 2 weeks to 1 month of salary for each year of service. We are now conducting another survey and findings will be ready by end of the year.
Does it mean that 1 out of 10 companies is a state-owned company?
TOC has written to the company on the claims by the workers on 15 Jan and yet to receive any form of response. We will include the company’s reply once they respond.