SINGAPORE - There is now a twist in an ongoing legal battle where five bus captains have sued their employer SBS Transit (SBST) at the State Courts over alleged breaches to the terms of their employment.
The drivers' employer is now referring some issues of the case to be arbitrated at a lower court where lawyers are barred from representing the workers.
And the employer's latest move has the backing of the Government, union and employers' federation, although the drivers' lawyer disagrees.
The drivers have made claims in the State Courts that raise questions about prescribed rest days and overtime pay, SBST said on Friday (Oct 18).
It has referred these claims to the Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) because they raise issues involving the collective agreements between SBST and the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU).
"In accordance with the law, in the interests of all of SBST's bus captains and in keeping with the letter and spirit of its excellent relationship with the NTWU, SBST will be referring these issues to the IAC for its decision," the company said.
The drivers sued SBST last month, claiming it paid them below the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) regulated rate for overtime work, and that their working hour records do not match the monthly pay slips they were given.
On Friday, the Singapore National Employers Federation said SBST's application to the IAC is a "responsible and appropriate step to take", while NTWU said the IAC is the appropriate platform for disputes on employment matters.
MOM called it a constructive move. The terms of the collective agreement affect not just the five drivers, but also about 6,000 SBST bus drivers, it added.
"The IAC is a more appropriate forum to deal with this matter as it is a specialised court to arbitrate on industrial disagreements and it serves to maintain industrial peace," the ministry said. "The IAC's interpretation on the collective agreement will provide finality and certainty on the issue for all."
A collective agreement is certified by the IAC. For this case, it will be heard by the IAC's president, whose decision on the matter is final and cannot be appealed against. Lawyers are barred from the IAC.
The drivers' lawyer, Mr M. Ravi of Carson Law Chambers, said his clients were surprised at the recent statement released by SBST. They filed their claims in the State Courts after talks with the company and the union were exhausted.
Mr Ravi said the IAC should be used when there is a deadlock between the employer and NTWU.
"Having lost their confidence in the NTWU in the first place, our clients withdrew from the NTWU and rightfully sought redress from the Court as a means to seek justice," he said.
He also said SBST, by filing its defence, had submitted to the jurisdiction of the State Courts.
"To respect the rule of law and the jurisdiction of the court, the redress ought to continue in the court and can be resolved amicably, if so desired, by utilising the mediation stage of the court process."
In response, SBST said referring the specified issue to the IAC has "nothing to do with mediation".
It is to interpret collective agreements which have been called into question, said its spokesman.
"In doing so, SBST is acting in accordance with the law, in the interests of all SBST bus captains and in keeping with the letter and spirit of our excellent relationship with the NTWU," the company spokesman said.
"SBST fully respects the jurisdiction of the court, which is why we will continue to vigorously contest the bus captains' claims in court."