SBS Transit lawsuit: Court to determine if public transport operators can require 'permanent overtime'

The Employment Act states that employees who work more than 44 hours in a week are entitled to overtime pay.
The Employment Act states that employees who work more than 44 hours in a week are entitled to overtime pay.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - 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 on Monday (Nov 4), transport operator SBS Transit (SBST) submitted that 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.

SBST's head of human resources Don Leow told the IAC: "The claims filed by the bus captains against SBS Transit are for another court, for another day. We fully respect the jurisdiction of the State Courts."

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

SBST then referred the terms of the collective agreement to the IAC, which serves as a "last resort" for resolving industrial disputes, as they affect not only the five drivers but also about 6,000 other SBST drivers.

On Monday, the court 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.

 
 

Mr Leow said this translates into 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 in a week are entitled to OT pay. This means that 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 added 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 or 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 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 NTWU's representative, NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay, agreed with Mr Leow, adding that the reasoning behind having an exception for essential services is to avoid disruptions and ensure the smooth running of the country.

The five drivers disagree with this interpretation, according to court documents filed last week in the State Courts and seen by The Straits Times.

The drivers' lawyer M. Ravi is contending 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.

In court on Monday, 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 that case, there would be no disruption and SBST would not have to rely on the exception, he added.

In response, Mr Tay said manpower shortage is a major issue facing the public transport sector.

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

Mr Leow said 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 thus submitted that the collective agreement is in accordance with the law.

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