In his May Day message to the country, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) sent a strong message to the workforce. Among other things, PM Lee said that employers “should not drop workers at the first sign of trouble” and that if employers were responsible, their workers would “remember and return the kindness, serve loyally and help their businesses survive” Further, companies would also be in a better position to rebuild, when the economy begins to recover if they keep their staff.
It is an important message to send to the country at this time as COVID-19 ravages the world and the global economy. That said, how will the Government ensure that employers do not exploit employees at this time of fear? Workers are naturally insecure and in a country where we are not known to have robust unions, what recourse will workers who are unfairly treated have?
Due to Tripartism in Singapore which basically refers to the collaboration among the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), strikes are unlikely and pretty much impossible. Laws protecting workers are also arguably vague, As a result of PM Lee’s speech, while strong, relies on the goodwill and cooperation of individual employers to come to fruition.
Let’s use the migrant workers as an example. Of course they will have much less bargaining power than the average worker in Singapore but they are a recent example. PM Lee has publicly undertaken to ensure that their salaries will be paid and they will be taken care of. The reality however is that if you dig digger, that is not what the advisory issued by the MOM says. The MOM advisory says that employers can cut salaries from S$600 to S$450 while workers will also lose their working allowance of S$400 since they are not working. In total, this is more than 50% salary cut. But what recourse do the workers realistically have? Other than the goodwill of individual employers, not very much.
In the Singaporean context, it will be similar albeit with better terms. If an employer is irresponsible and selfish and takes the opportunity to cut salaries drastically, what can the worker practically do?
Although we have the Employment Claims Act 2016 and an Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT). This is relatively new and not generally considered a mainstream avenue for unfairly treated workers to pursue.
While it is commendable for the Government to pledge help to retrain workers for available jobs, there is no readily acceptable mechanism to take an errant employer to task for COVID-19 specific mistreatment.
PM Lee said, “We will not be able to save every job, but we will look after every worker.” What measures are in place to ensure that the worker is indeed protected from an irresponsible employer in the COVID-19 era?
Will the Government consider setting up a specific tribunal mechanism to allow workers who have been unfairly laid off or had their salaries drastically cut out of employee greed rather than necessity to challenge their employers in the COVID-19 era?
Sadly, if we really are committed to protecting the general public, we cannot rely on the good will of employers. Employers are by nature driven by profit. Unless there is a way for irresponsible and reprehensible employers to be taken to task for bad behaviour, there really is no effective way to protect every worker in the time of COVID-19.