Eight bus drivers file application to quash IAC decision in dispute against SBS Transit

Plaintiffs argued that IAC's decision was based "solely" upon "samples of bus captains' employment contracts and information provided by SBS Transit"

Source: Terry Xu

Eight bus drivers on Thu (16 Jan) filed a judicial review application to the High Court to quash the Industrial Arbitration Court’s (IAC)’s decision in their dispute against SBS Transit regarding overtime wages and rest days.

A hearing was conducted on 4 Nov last year 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 exceptions.

IAC president Chan Seng Onn, a High Court judge, in a written decision stated that SBS Transit’s agreements with the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) were not in breach of the Employment Act.

The IAC decision, argued the drivers as seen by TOC in court documents dated 16 Jan, was “irrational” and was in breach of its jurisdiction, as the IAC had allegedly failed to consider “all relevant material” prior to making said decision.

The bus drivers argued that the IAC’s decision was based “solely” upon “samples of bus captains’ employment contracts and information provided by SBS Transit”, which the IAC had “extrapolated to all Bus Captains” as well as “the presentations by NTWU which held the position that SBS Transit’s practices were not in breach of the Employment Act”.

“This is clearly irrational, as it does not take into account rosters and contracts of Bus Captains who allege otherwise,” their affidavit read.

Furthermore, the bus drivers highlighted that NTWU, as an entity that is not a party to the dispute between them and SBS, should not act as — in their words, “a nosy parker” to represent the interests of non-unionised workers such as themselves, particularly when the union holds that the plaintiffs have no basis for their claims.

“It is highly irregular for NTWU to be taking cognisance of a trade dispute raised by non-union members, and at the same time, maintaining the position that the aforesaid disputants have no basis for their claims,” they argued.

The bus drivers also alleged — in giving reasons for applying for judicial review of the IAC decision — that SBS Transit had “covertly attempted” to have the legal dispute “resolved beforehand” in the IAC in their absence.

The above, they argued, constituted a breach of the audi alteram paltram rule — one of the principal rules in natural justice — which dictates that a decision made by a court cannot stand unless the party directly affected by the decision was given a fair chance to state their case and to hear the other party’s case in a hearing.

The plaintiffs also argued that the IAC had “jumped the gun” by taking on the question of whether SBS Transit’s practices were in line with the Employment Act “before it was established that SBS Transit was in breach of the relevant provisions” of the Act.

They claimed that it is not within the jurisdiction of a lower court such as the IAC to do so, and that “it is for a higher court to deliver judgement” on whether or not there has been a breach before referring the case back to the IAC to give the necessary orders.

The bus drivers, in light of the above claims, have also applied to the High Court for a quashing order against the IAC decision.

The bus drivers in the immediate case — represented by M Ravi of Carson Law Chambers — comprise three Singaporeans and five Malaysians. Five of them filed a writ of summons against SBS Transit in Sep last year, while three filed theirs in Dec.

Lawsuits against SBS Transit over wage dispute filed in Sep last year

In a writ of summons filed by Mr M Ravi and seen by TOC last Sep, five 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.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 Mr M Ravi.

A statement of claim — filed the same month — stressed that four of the bus drivers had already “commenced similar suits” against SBS Transit in the Magistrates Court previously, but were told to “wait for the decision” regarding their claim and report against the company.

“However, both the claim and report were ignored despite attending two (2) meetings with the National Transport Workers’ Union (“NTWU”) and ComfortDelGro respectively,” the document read, noting that the meetings took place in Jul and Aug.

The particular plaintiff in the statement of claim had “officially lodged a report to Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM)”, which was then referred to the National Trades Congress Union (NTUC).

However, he did not receive any “conclusive answers” after the meetings and decided to request “an official letter” from SBS Transit detailing the breakdown of his monthly pay in order “to better understand where the Defendants were coming from”.

While SBS Transit purportedly agreed to send such a letter within two days of the bus driver’s request, he did not receive any response from the company, following which he “sent out four (4) chaser emails” to the company.

SBS Transit allegedly replied by “restating their position which is in breach of the contract”, according to the statement of claim.

Among the alleged breaches included, but were not limited to, the following:

  • Expecting the plaintiff to work for “7 consecutive days prior to getting an off day”, which the plaintiff claimed was not what both he and SBS Transit had agreed upon in the Letter of Appointment – thus possibly breaching Section 36 of the Employment Act where an employee should be given a rest day per week, or a rest day after a continuous period of 30 hours if on shift; and
  • Putting the plaintiff in a position where he had worked “beyond 44 hours in a week”, which possibly contravenes Sections 38(1)(a) and 38(1)(b) of the Employment Act whereby an employee should not be required to work either more than 6 consecutive hours without a period of leisure, or more than 8 hours in a day, or more than 44 hours in a week.

The Straits Times reported Mr M Ravi as saying on Fri (17 Jan) that the five drivers will currently undergo mediation, but will carry on with their civil lawsuit and go to trial against SBS Transit should the two parties fail to settle the dispute via mediation.

Mr M Ravi also told ST on Fri that a pre-trial conference for the judicial review against the IAC decision is scheduled for 4 Feb at 2.30pm.

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