Protecting workers under Employment Act: Five top concerns

MPs gave the nod to changes made to the Employment Act to give rights and protection to all workers, but also raised some concerns during the parliament debate on Nov 20, 2018.
MPs gave the nod to changes made to the Employment Act to give rights and protection to all workers, but also raised some concerns during the parliament debate on Nov 20, 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

MPs gave the nod to changes made to the Employment Act to give rights and protection to all workers, saying the much broader coverage is timely, given the way Singapore's workforce has evolved over the years.

But during yesterday's debate in Parliament on the Employment (Amendment) Bill, they also raised some concerns and pointed to gaps in the law.

Here are some key issues they highlighted.

REMOVAL OF SALARY THRESHOLD

Many MPs supported the expansion of the Employment Act, which, from next April, will no longer have a monthly salary cap of $4,500.

Several said its removal, which will extend the law's core provisions to all private-sector workers, is timely because higher-paid professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) are expected to form two-thirds of the local workforce by 2030.

Said labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC): "This is a radical step forward, given that just a decade ago, PMEs were not even covered under the Act." Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) agreed: "Everyone deserves to have their rights guaranteed, regardless of the nature of work and income drawn."

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) noted that as Singapore becomes a digital economy, the proportion of PMETs will continue to grow.

SALARY THRESHOLD FOR 'PART IV' WORKERS

Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party and labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked why the salary threshold for non-workmen - rank-and-file white-collar workers - covered by Part IV of the Act was raised by just $100, to $2,600.

RADICAL STEP FORWARD

This is a radical step forward, given that just a decade ago, PMEs were not even covered under the Act.

LABOUR MP PATRICK TAY

Part IV gives extra protection to these workers, as well as blue-collar workmen earning up to $4,500, in areas such as payment for overtime work and rest days.

Mr Zainal noted that the increase does not keep pace with the rise in Singapore's median income, which has grown from $2,500 in 2010 to $3,300 last year.

Associate Professor Goh added that the increase should have been more substantial to better protect white-collar workers, whose jobs have become more vulnerable because of technological disruption.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo replied that the Government's longer-term intent is to close the gap between the salary thresholds of workmen and non-workmen.

She also said the $100 amount took into account the impact on both workers and employers.

"When benefits are upped, so too are the costs borne by employers," she added.

DISTINCTION BETWEEN BLUE-AND WHITE-COLLAR WORKERS

Prof Goh suggested that the Government commit to a timeframe to remove the distinction between workmen and non-workmen.

Similarly, Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said the distinctions between blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and managers should be replaced with a single inclusive term such as "employees" or "workers".

Mrs Teo responded that the distinction remained largely in Part IV, a section which regulates working hours, rest days and overtime payments, and is more applicable to workers who are not managers or executives.

 
 
 
 

"Including managers and executives, whose work tends to be more outcome-based, will make our laws much more rigid and prescriptive," she added.

PROTECTION FOR SELF-EMPLOYED WORKERS

Several MPs, including Nominated MP Walter Theseira and Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC), raised concerns about protection for the self-employed.

Dr Theseira noted that technology and new business models have widened the scope of self-employment, while also subjecting such workers to greater control.

This leads to a rising trend of technology platforms having all the benefits of control over the self-employed worker, but none of the statutory responsibilities under the Employment Act, he said.

Ms Pereira agreed, saying she has heard of workers in such hiring arrangements being unsure of their employment rights and entitlements and, therefore, at risk of exploitative practices.

Mrs Teo replied that a workgroup formed by her ministry to look into the self-employed's concerns has made a set of recommendations the Government has accepted and is implementing.

ENHANCED PROTECTION AGAINST WRONGFUL DISMISSAL

MPs welcomed the moves to enhance protection for workers against wrongful dismissal.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), for example, noted that the changes will let aggrieved workers seek redress when they have been manipulated or forced to resign.

But others, such as Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), said the new Act does not define what constitutes dismissal without just cause or excuse.

"Without a clear definition, the protection against unfair dismissal may be ineffective because instances of unfair dismissal are often not clear cut and can be easily disguised," he said.

Mrs Teo replied that it would not be possible to define all scenarios of wrongful dismissal. Moreover, it is not a new Employment Act provision and there are many past cases which can be referred to for determining whether a dismissal is unfair, she said.

Nominated MP Douglas Foo, who is a vice-president of the Singapore National Employers Federation, said business leaders are concerned as well that the changes to the law may encourage more false claims of wrongful dismissal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2018, with the headline 'Protecting workers: Five top concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe