While the proposed changes in the Amendment Bill of the Employment Act will bring tangible benefits to employees, employers' concerns surrounding costs and work arrangements need to be taken into account in the process of accommodating employees, said Bishan-Toa Payoh Member of Parliament Saktiandi Supaat.
Speaking in response to Manpower Minister Josephine Teo's Second Reading of the Amendment Bill of the Employment Act (EA) in Parliament on 20 Nov, Mr Saktiandi said that business owners, particularly those in the small and medium enterprise (SME) segment, have spoken to him about their fear regarding having to incur extra business costs and decreased productivity in the face of the amendments made to the EA.
"Some of the business owners did not not know about the amendment Bill coming up, and as a large number of them are in the F&B and retail segments, with high labour inputs, they feel that they could be significantly affected.
"To assure employers and keep them well-informed of the necessary facts, I urge MOM and the Minister to reach out and engage them proactively," said Mr Saktiandi.
Rigidity of the changes made to the EA could "complicate matters" for companies offering flexible working hours and remote work
Mr Saktiandi added that the policy’s "fixation" with the number of working hours could also "complicate matters" for companies preferring to implement flexible working hours and giving employees freedom to do remote work.
Citing anecdotes from a focus group discussion he attended at the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SMCCI), Mr Saktiandi recalled how a co-founder of a software and design company expressed his apprehension over having to potentially shoulder extra "administrative burdens" as a result of having to monitor and document the movements of some of his employees who have opted to work from home.
"If there is no adequate solution in place to scrutinise these employees’ working hours, some employees may take advantage of the situation and report longer working hours, so that they can be entitled to overtime pay, and their firms have to pay them.
"I believe clearer policies are necessary when we are encouraging more employers to favour flexi-work arrangements," Mr Saktiandi suggested.
Greater flexibility also needed in terms of granting mandatory leave due to potentially increased costs and room for misuse on employee's part leading to loss of productivity
Another business owner, said Mr Saktiandi, touched on the need to have greater flexibility on mandatory leave.
"He personally exercises flexibility and fairness, and would even allow employees to take more leave than their contract entitles them to when the situation calls for it, and when it is possible to do so.
"On the other hand, he has some employees who do not have to take leave, but he has to ask them to clear their leave regardless, when he could have benefitted from the additional productivity, as he is afraid that he will be penalised otherwise," said Mr Saktiandi.
"Another employer I spoke to was concerned about the new policy which allows any medical practitioner to certify an employee for sick or hospitalisation leave, rather than the current approach of restricting certification to a practitioner appointed by the employer.
"He was concerned that other clinics, particularly private clinics, are more liberal with MCs, compared to the polyclinics and Government hospitals, whose MCs are the only certifications his company accepts," he said.
Consequently, said Mr Saktiandi, "for SMEs like his, even a loss of one day’s worth of productivity poses a significant problem", adding that "moreover, his company subsidises employees’ medical fees, so if the employer chooses to see a more expensive private medical practitioner, this also potentially leads to increased costs."
Salary threshold for "rank and file office workers" ought to be raised to curb commonplace practice of overworking newly employed young executives in particular
Mr Saktiandi also acknowledged that while the lifting of the salary cap in order to cover all PMEs under the Employment Act is "a good enhancement", as "every worker deserves protection regardless of the nature of work and their income", he hoped that MOM "will consider raising the cap for rank and file office workers" as "the proposed raise in salary cap for rank and file white-collar workers is only up to $2,600".
Citing the account of a young research executive who gets paid $3,000 a month, Mr Saktiandi recalled how the research executive "has to do overtime almost every day on weekdays and on weekends", and how "she has to bring the work home" in the event that she did not go to the office.
"She eventually resigned, and the employer will simply get someone to replace her, and this vicious cycle continues.
"Cases like this make me gravely concerned about employers who pay their junior staff a little higher than the salary threshold, even giving them an empty executive or managerial titles, where they do not actually have executive or supervisory functions, so that they can legally overwork their employee without paying them overtime," lamented Mr Saktiandi.
"I think that regardless how much they are being paid, if they are required to work for more than 10 hours for the day, perhaps the Employment Act should make it mandatory for them to be compensated with time-off, so they can rest," he suggested.
Mr Saktiandi also raised a question as to how "gig workers" in Singapore will be protected under the "enhanced" EA.
While Employment Claims Tribunal open to potential misuse by employees who want to "take advantage of the employer," repeatedly "errant" employers should receive "heavier penalties"
While Mr Saktiandi agreed that it is a "wise move to designate the Employment Claims Tribunal as a "one-stop service" for all employment-related disputes", as it will potentially "shorten the amount of time for the aggrieved employee to seek help", he suggested that "the cases should be heard and resolved within six months to eight months, otherwise it drags too long, and the employee who is victimised is left hanging".
Regarding the Tribunal's role in investigating claims related to salary and wrongful dismissal, he posed several questions: "What efforts will be made to ensure that the Tribunal is staffed with adequate manpower and resources to address all the disputes in a timely manner? What kind of training will the mediators and investigating officers receive?"
He also highlighted the possibility of employees misusing the right to bring up salary deduction claims to the Tribunal under the proposed changes to the EA.
"Though less common, sometimes, it is the employee who tries to take advantage of the employer. I note that the employers are now required to obtain the written consent of their employees should they want to make any deductions from their salary for certain services, such as accommodation or amenities.
"Written consent may also be withdrawn, without penalty in some scenarios, by the employee in written notice before the deduction is made. But what about situations whereby the employee has clearly abused the company’s travel policies, for example, to splurge on services for personal enjoyment? Who can they seek redress from as an employer?" said Mr Saktiandi.
However, Mr Saktiandi also stressed that "errant employers should receive heavier penalties, especially if it is not their first time facing a dispute".
He also agreed with the proposed extension to the scope of wrongful dismissal which will include forced resignation.
"There are many undesirable circumstances which lead to involuntary resignations, such as bullying and sexual harassment," argued Mr Saktiandi, and it is only fair that such cases fall under wrongful dismissal.
Claimants' literacy in English or a lack thereof ought to be considered in the process of submitting documents to the Tribunal; assistance ought to be provided to claimants to submit their claims in their Mother Tongue
Mr Saktiandi also raised an issue with the lack of inclusivity in the requirement to submit documents in English when making claims to the Tribunal.
"Some complainants, especially those who are older, may find that they are more comfortable explaining their predicament in their Mother Tongue. Perhaps they may not even be literate in English.
"I note that documents submitted to file a claim must be in the English language. Otherwise, a certified translation of the document must be provided. One question I would like to ask the Minister would be: Will assistance be available for those who are less proficient in English?"
"There is no room for discrimination in Singapore and our employment policies must reflect that. Otherwise, our minority and vulnerable Singaporeans will have to compromise by settling for fewer choices of employers, and this sort of situation can lead to undesirable and even dangerous outcomes in the future," warned Mr Saktiandi.
However, he added, "we also have to be careful not to penalise the good employers who have genuine difficulties in meeting all the requirements."
"A good work culture is a two-way street after all, and expecting SMEs and micro-SMEs to accommodate a poorly performing employee would take a significant toll on their existing resources.
"Ultimately, all our local SMEs are important resources. We have to do more to engage them, understand their concerns and help them out, so they can do well and continue to provide good jobs and good working environment to Singaporeans," concluded Mr Saktiandi.