NTUC, unions stepped in to stop unfair retrenchment by aircraft maintenance firm; industry action averted

The company last week asked some employees to leave the workplace before retrenchment talks were concluded. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - The National Trades Union Congress and three unions said on Wednesday (July 29) they stepped in last week to stop unfair retrenchment practices by aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul firm Eagle Services Asia.

The company had not followed the due process for retrenchment, when it went ahead to inform some workers last week that they may be laid off even before talks with the aerospace and aviation unions concluded, said NTUC in a joint statement with the unions.

"The lack of transparency and disregard for negotiations with the unions is not acceptable and is not how a retrenchment exercise should be conducted."

Labour chief Ng Chee Meng had earlier authorised the unions to prepare for legal industrial action if the management refused to budge. However, this was averted, after the firm corrected its retrenchment process.

When the negotiations concluded, the parties had jointly reviewed the final retrenchment name list of more than 140 workers, with around 44 per cent of them Singaporeans. The initial list, which had 144 workers, consisted of about 56 per cent Singaporeans.

On July 22, the management of Eagle Services Asia proceeded to ask specific employees to leave work before finalising the name list with the unions. This is in spite of ongoing negotiations with the Air Transport Executive Staff Union, SIA Engineering Company Engineers and Executives Union, and Singapore Airlines Staff Union since early July.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mr Ng, who is NTUC secretary-general, said the parties had been in tense negotiations "to fight for a fair and dignified retrenchment".

"While NTUC respects management's needed measures to keep the business viable, we will stand up for our workers' dignity, interests and fair play," he added.

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Following talks, the management of Eagle Services Asia, which is a unionised company under the three unions representing different groups of employees - administrative officers, engineers and technicians - conceded that the retrenchment process could have been better managed and made adjustments.

"I am glad that calm and good sense prevailed ultimately," said Mr Ng. "We have since been able to reach an amicable agreement with the company on the retrenchment."

When talks concluded, the parties had reviewed the selection criteria and name list of retrenched employees to ensure that as far as possible, the Singaporean core of the workforce is safeguarded, while giving due considerations to its foreign workers, he added.

In addition to getting a fair compensation package for affected workers, the unions had also negotiated for an additional training grant for affected union members.

A secret ballot conducted by the unions earlier to sanction legal industrial action received overwhelming support from members.

Legal strikes today are virtually unheard of. The last legal strike in Singapore happened in 1986 when NTUC's then secretary-general Ong Teng Cheong signed off on a two-day strike by members of the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union against their employer Hydril, an American oilfield equipment company.

Last week, some Eagle Services Asia workers were told to leave their workplace immediately, while others were denied entry.

The company, a joint venture between SIA Engineering Company and American aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, told The Straits Times it had considered retrenchment after implementing other cost containment measures, "such as a temporary salary reduction and short work week, cancelled merit increases, hiring freezes and discretionary spending cuts".

"Employee departures are never easy," said the firm. "This is unfortunately a result of current market conditions we are facing, including customer-driven volume declines due to a generational pandemic no one could foresee."

Affected staff - some of whom have been with the firm for decades - expressed disappointment with the way the situation was handled. One employee said the past week has been "something of an emotional roller-coaster".

Union leaders and staff from NTUC's Employment and Employability Institute were on site to assist affected employees with support and job placement opportunities.

The Ministry of Manpower said the firm had made certain decisions unilaterally, without consulting the ministry and the unions while discussions were still ongoing.

"This is not aligned with our tripartite advisory where we tell employers to consult their unions early with a view to resolve disputes amicably," it added.

NTUC reiterated that companies should only consider retrenchments as a last resort. When retrenchment is inevitable, companies should observe the tripartite advisory and guidelines on managing excess manpower and responsible retrenchment.

Mr Ng said NTUC understands that these are tough times. "Nonetheless, there must still be fair play and proper process accorded to affected workers in any retrenchment," he added.

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