Industrial court deliberates issue of working hours

It is considering whether public transport operators are entitled to make staff work more than 44 hours a week

The question of whether public transport operators are entitled to require their employees to work beyond the maximum of 44 hours a week, as laid out in the Employment Act, has been put forth to the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC).

During a 90-minute hearing yesterday, SBS Transit (SBST) said it is entitled to do so under exceptions to the limits for essential services.

IAC president Chan Seng Onn, a High Court judge, adjourned the hearing and will deliver his decision at a later date.

His interpretation could determine if a collective agreement between SBST and the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) is in accordance with the law.

This will likely have implications for an ongoing legal battle involving five SBST bus drivers, who are suing their employer. This case will be heard separately.

The drivers, who were not present at the IAC yesterday, claim that SBST paid them below the Manpower Ministry's regulated rate for overtime work, and that their working hour records do not match their monthly pay slips.

SBST referred the terms of the collective agreement to the IAC, as the deal affects not only the five drivers but also about 6,000 other drivers.

The court, which serves as a "last resort" for resolving industrial disputes, yesterday heard that SBST drivers are expected to work morning shifts and afternoon shifts on alternating weeks, six days a week.

A morning shift typically begins at 5.30am and ends at 2.30pm, while an afternoon shift begins at 1.30pm and ends at 12.30am.

SBST head of human resources Don Leow said this translates to a 48-hour work week on morning-shift weeks and a 60-hour work week on afternoon-shift weeks, excluding breaks and meal times.

This is inclusive of "built-in" overtime (OT) hours, he told the court.

The Employment Act states that employees who work more than 44 hours a week are entitled to OT pay.

Morning-shift drivers get four hours of OT pay a week, while afternoon-shift drivers get 16 hours of OT pay a week.

Mr Leow said that the expectation of OT work is made known to the drivers at the point of recruitment.

The Act also states that employees should not be required in their contract to work more than an average of 44 hours a week except in the event of exigencies of service, such as accidents, urgently required work or unforeseen circumstances, and for work essential to the life of the community, and for defence or security. It also allows exceptions for certain essential services as defined in a separate law, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

The point of contention in the case is on whether the exception applies to essential services only if there are exigencies of service.

Mr Leow said SBST believes it is legally entitled to ask its drivers to exceed the prescribed limit even if there are no exigencies of service.

The five drivers disagree with this, according to court documents seen by The Straits Times.

In a reply to SBST's defence, the drivers' lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, said that OT hours should not be incorporated into normal work hours as the services of bus drivers under ordinary circumstances do not fall under the purpose of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

Yesterday, Justice Chan said one could also argue that another shift could be implemented to ensure individual drivers do not have to work more than 44 hours a week on "permanent OT".

In response, the NTWU's representative, labour MP Patrick Tay, said manpower shortage is a major issue for the public transport sector.

The two-shift system is the established industry practice, and the union had no issues with the terms of the agreement, he added.

Mr Leow said that drivers who feel that they are unable to work the expected hours after signing their contracts can also switch to a part-time scheme and work half-shifts instead. Their work hours would then fall below the maximum allowed under the Employment Act.

Both Mr Leow and Mr Tay said that the collective agreement is in accordance with the law.

The date for the next hearing has yet to be fixed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2019, with the headline Industrial court deliberates issue of working hours. Subscribe