IAC to decide on whether public transport operators can compel staff to work beyond maximum hours

Following public transport operator SBS Transit Ltd’s decision to refer a recent wage dispute case filed by five bus drivers against the company to the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC), a hearing was held on Mon (4 Nov) to determine whether public transport operators have the legal right to require their employees to work beyond the maximum of 44 hours per week as stated in the Employment Act based on certain exceptions.

IAC president Chan Seng Onn, a High Court judge, however said that SBS Transit does not have to rely on said exceptions if it is able to implement another shift for its bus drivers. With the option of said shift, individual drivers will not have to work over 44 hours a week on “permanent OT”, he proposed.

Solicitors from Davinder Singh LLC, on behalf of SBS Transit, in their written submission argued that SBS Transit is entitled to ask its bus captains to “work on a rest day under section 38(2)(f) of the Employment Act”.

“Under section 38(2)(f) of the Employment Act, an employee may be required by his employer to exceed the prescribed limit of hours in the case of work to be performed by employees in any industrial undertaking essential to the economy of Singapore or any of the essential services under Part III of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (Chapter 67) (CLA),” he added.

Mr Singh further argued that “essential service” means any service included in Part I of the First Schedule of the CLA, which includes public transport.

The defence lawyer also argued that the bus captains “were only expected to work, and in fact worked, 6 days” per week.

“Section 41 of the Employment Act provides that for the purposes of, inter alia, sections 36 and 38 of the Employment Act, “week” shall mean a “continuous period of 7 days commencing at midnight on Sunday”.

“Therefore, the Employment Act expressly permits, for example, the rest day in the first “week” to fall on the Monday and the rest day in the second “week” to fall on the Sunday,” he added.

The court heard that SBS Transit drivers are expected to work morning shifts and afternoon shifts on alternating weeks, six days a week. Morning shifts begin at 5.30am and end at 2.30pm, while afternoon ones begin at 1.30pm and end at 12.30am.

SBS Transit’s head of human resources Don Leow subsequently suggested that, based on the above, SBS Transit’s bus drivers will have a 48-hour work week on morning-shift weeks and a 60-hour work week on afternoon-shift weeks, which do not include breaks and meal times.

The 48-hour work week is inclusive of “built-in” overtime (OT) hours, he added.

M Ravi, the lawyer for the five bus drivers, however, argued against the implementation of the “built-in” OT hours into regular work hours, as the services of bus drivers under ordinary circumstances do not fall under the purpose of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

Having stressed that SBS Transit has informed its drivers regarding the OT even during recruitment, Mr Leow, in turn, proposed that drivers who are unable to work the expected hours after signing their contracts may opt to switch to part-time employment and work half-shifts instead, which will fall below the maximum allowed under the Employment Act.

NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay, a representative of the National Transport Workers’ Union, in concurring with Mr Low, said that the exception for essential services allows SBS Transit to “avoid disruptions and ensure the smooth running of the country”, an argument opposed by the five drivers in the State Courts last week.

Mr Tay added that the public transport sector is faced with a manpower shortage, and that the two-shift system is the standard practice in the industry. He also said that NTWU “had no issues” with the terms of the agreement.

Mr Singh in his submission also argued that the bus drivers “whether unionised or not, were and are better off” with SBS Transit’s practices, as they “are paid their full monthly basic salary even if they do not actually clock the full 4 hours of Built-In OT”.

“Further, the hours of work for which the Bus Captains are paid include their breaks and meal times. The Defendant schedules at least 45 minutes of break and meal times in the Bus Captains’ daily work schedules,” he stressed.

Mr Singh also claimed that on 13 Dec 2010, SBS Transit yielded to NTWU’s request to revise the denominator of the Bus Captains’ hourly rate computation from 48 hours to 44 hours, with effect from 1 Jan 2011.

“As a result of that, the hourly rate of Bus Captains increased. For example, the hourly rate of a Singaporean Bus Captain on a starting salary of $1375 increased from $6.61 (i.e. $1375 x 12 / (52 x 48)) to $7.21 (i.e. $1375 x 12 / (52 x 44)).

“That had the effect of boosting the overtime earnings for all Bus Captains, as the pay for overtime worked in excess of the 48 hours would be computed based on the higher hourly rate,” he said.

In addition to that, four hours “were compensated by their incorporation into the monthly basic salary”, and “a separate payment of 2 hours per week was made to the Bus Captains as a weekly allowance”, said Mr Singh.

Mr Singh also argued that SBS Transit “at all material times” has acted appropriately in tandem with the Employment Act.

For example, he submitted that SBS Transit did not and does not require its bus captains “under their contracts of service to work more than 6 hours without a period of leisure” in line with section 38(1)(a) of the Employment Act.

“At all material times, the Defendant complied with its contractual obligations to the Plaintiff and the law. Its rules and/or regulations and/or policies and/or prevailing schemes and/or practices on working hours, overtime and rest days were and are in accordance with the Employment Act (Chapter 91) and the Ministry of Manpower’s guidelines,” Mr Singh reiterated.

The hearing is adjourned to a later date, which has yet to be determined.

SBS Transit bus drivers withdrew from NTWU after multiple attempts to push for Union’s representation in wage dispute; IAC should be used only in a “deadlock”: Carson Law Chambers

M Ravi previously said on 18 Oct that his clients “withdrew” from the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) and “rightfully sought redress from the Court as a means to seek justice”.

Mr Ravi stressed that its clients had only filed their claims in the Magistrates’ Court “after all discussion and internal processes with the employer and the union had exhausted”.

Highlighting that the IAC “should rightly be used when there is a deadlock between the NTWU and the employer”, Mr Ravi said that SBS Transit “had submitted to the jurisdiction of the State Court” by filing its defence through its lawyers.

“To respect the rule of law and the jurisdiction of the Court, the redress ought to continue in the Courts and can be resolved amicably (if so desired) by utilising the mediation stage of the Court process,” the statement read.

Responding to Mr Ravi’s statement, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at SBS Transit Tammy Tan, however, told TOC on 18 Oct that SBS Transit “fully respects the jurisdiction of the Court, which is why we will continue to vigorously contest the bus captains’ claims in Court”.

Reference to IAC “has nothing to do with mediation”, company will continue to “vigorously contest” bus drivers’ claims in court: SBS Transit

Ms Tan also stressed that “[t]he reference to IAC has nothing to do with mediation”, but “to interpret Collective Agreements which have been called into question.”

“In doing so, SBS Transit is acting in accordance with the law, in the interests of all of SBS Transit bus captains and in keeping with the letter and spirit of our excellent relationship with the NTWU,” she added.

In a statement on Fri, SBS Transit said that it “has acted in accordance with its obligations in law and under the relevant agreements and practices” towards its employees, including the five bus drivers.

The claims made by the bus drivers, SBS Transit added, “raise issues that arise from and affect collective agreements that SBS Transit has entered into with the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU)”.

“Therefore, in accordance with the law, in the interests of all of SBS Transit’s Bus Captains and in keeping with the letter and spirit of its excellent relationship with the NTWU, SBS Transit will be referring these issues to the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) for its decision,” the company added.

SBS Transit allegedly “breached the term of the contract on overtime pay and have underpaid the clients”: Carson Law Chambers

In a writ of summons filed by lawyer M Ravi on 20 Sep and seen by TOC on 23 Sep, the bus drivers, who have been working for SBS Transit between three years to a decade, alleged that the company has “breached the term of the contract on overtime pay and have underpaid the clients”.

The above claim was made based on the discrepancy between the drivers’ working hour records and the monthly pay slips they had received from SBS Transit, which were below the Ministry of Manpower (MOM)’s regulated pay rate, the document read.

According to law firm Carson Law Chambers today, their lawyer M Ravi argued that the aforementioned lawsuit is significant, as the immediate case is “the first wage dispute case of its kind involving Singapore’s bus operator”.

The ruling will not only affect Carson Law Chambers’ immediate clients in this case, but also thousands of other SBS transit drivers, as “[m]any have worked loyally and diligently for several years and back-pay”, said the firm.

M Ravi added that the possibility of a breach of MOM’s regulated pay rate needs to be examined in the immediate case, and that any “statutory sanctions”, if available, should be looked into accordingly.

Additionally, the suit will potentially delve into the “extent of various Employment Act breaches that may have occurred with regards rest days and overtime pay in the Contracts of Employment”, according to M Ravi.

Correction: This article previously states that Davinder Singh represented SBS Transit in the IAC hearing, and that he had drafted the written submission on behalf of SBS Transit. The written submission was drafted by solicitors from Davinder Singh LLC. The article has been amended to reflect the change accordingly. We apologise for the error.