Parliament: Surbana Jurong labelling workers it fired as poor performers not acceptable, says Lim Swee Say

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say rapped Surbana Jurong for the manner in which it laid off 54 workers last month.
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say rapped Surbana Jurong for the manner in which it laid off 54 workers last month. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The way Surbana Jurong publicly labelled its employees as poor performers when it fired them last month was unacceptable, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

In Parliament on Tuesday (Feb 7), the minister rapped the Temasek Holdings-owned infrastructure consultancy for the manner in which it laid off 54 workers last month.

Mr Lim said that in all his years in the labour movement and Ministry of Manpower (MOM), it was the first time he had seen an employer announce that the affected workers had been poor performers in such a major termination exercise.

"I do not find it acceptable. If the performance of employees are not up to mark, there could be contributing factors on the part of employers as well," he told the House, citing the work environment and human resource (HR) practices, among other things.

Mr Lim noted that performance management should be the joint responsibility of employees and employers.

He added: "Yes, it may be a poor performance in one organisation. But it does not mean that a person cannot do well in other places."

Surbana drew criticism for not following due process when it terminated the services of the workers. The company claimed they had performed poorly, in a strongly-worded letter to staff, as well as in a statement to the media.

It later acknowledged that the dismissals could have been better managed.

The 54 workers who were axed account for about 0.79 per cent of its 3,000 employees in Singapore, and about 0.41 per cent of its 13,000-strong global workforce.

Four MPs asked about the episode, including Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC), who pointed out that individuals who were labelled poor performers would find it very difficult to look for another job.

Mr Lim agreed, and said this was why employers who want to fire workers for poor performance should do so in a responsible and sensitive manner. He said: "I hope that we will not come across another case where a company does a major termination and labels the employees as poor performers publicly."

"Whether it's a GLC (government-linked company), MNC (multinational company), large local enterprises or public services...we do expect all companies but especially major employers to conduct their HR practices in a responsible and progressive manner," he added.

Most importantly, employers must be able to substantiate their claim of poor performance.

To do this, employers are to apply relevant and objective performance criteria, which should be made known to all employees. They should also keep records of their employees' performance.

Unions should be consulted when the employee is part of a union.

If an employer is unable to show documented evidence that the employee's performance was poor, the termination will be considered unlawful.

The employer may be ordered to reinstate the employee, or to provide compensation.

Mr Lim said that there is no need for employees to access the employer's evidence. They only need to file an appeal on unfair termination to MOM.

MOM will conduct an inquiry, and employers will be required to show cause and produce evidence to justify the termination.

The minister said MOM receives more than 200 cases of such appeals per year, most of which are resolved through mediation.

About 30 cases a year are referred for inquiry where the employers are required to show cause.

On average, employers are ordered to compensate affected employees in about 10 cases every year.

In the case of Surbana, the management and unions have reached a settlement. The company will give the affected workers an ex-gratia payment.

"Our view is that this settlement is a fair one," Mr Lim said.

A Surbana statement on Tuesday said: "We have resolved the matter fairly and amicably with the unions. We are currently reviewing our performance management processes to improve the system, including communicating with our employees more frequently."

Note: This story has been updated.