SBS Transit's collective agreements not in breach of Employment Act: Court

Justice Chan Seng Onn noted that SBS Transit's practice of having four hours of compulsory overtime a week in its employment contracts is different from what is defined in the Employment Act. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The terms of several collective agreements between SBS Transit (SBST) and the National Transport Workers' Union (NTWU) do not breach the Employment Act, but the language could be clearer to avoid confusion.

The Industrial Arbitration Court (IAC) president, Justice Chan Seng Onn, issued a written decision on Wednesday (Nov 13) laying out his interpretation of the collective agreements.

The court did not hear the claims of the five SBST bus drivers who are separately suing their employer in the State Courts. The drivers claim SBST paid them below the Ministry of Manpower's regulated rate for overtime work and that their working hour records do not match their monthly pay slips.

SBST had 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.

Justice Chan said the collective agreements have been complied with, according to sample employment contracts, sample rosters and pay calculations submitted by SBST.

Terms relating to rest days are also not in breach of the Act, he said.

But he also noted that SBST's practice of having four hours of compulsory overtime (OT) a week in its employment contracts is different from what is defined in the Employment Act.

The Act states that employees shall not be required under their contract to work more than eight hours a day or more than 44 hours a week.

Any hours worked beyond this must also be compensated with OT pay of 1.5 times the basic rate of pay.

In its employment contracts, SBST requires its drivers to work 48 hours a week, including four hours of what it calls "built-in" OT.

Refusal to work the four "built-in" OT hours is considered a breach of contract, SBST told the court.

But this 48-hour work week also includes at least 45 minutes of rest periods a day for breaks and meals, while the Act excludes breaks.

In effect, this works out to 43.5 working hours a week and is not in breach of the Act, Justice Chan said.

"In determining whether there is a breach of the statutory limits for working hours, I adopt the same meaning for 'hours of work' as that defined in the Employment Act and not that adopted by the employers in their employment contracts with bus captains.

"In addition, I have to treat the built-in overtime of four hours per week as part of the normal contractual working hours of the employee and not as overtime per se, which should always be optional for the employee."

He said this difference could cause confusion or misunderstanding and added that it would be up to SBST and the NTWU to decide if they want to review the work arrangements for bus drivers and adopt the definitions of terms like "basic rate of pay", "gross rate of pay", "hours of work" and "overtime" as set out in the Employment Act.

SBST had also said in a previous hearing that it is entitled to require its drivers to work beyond the statutory limits, as public transport is considered an essential service under the Act.

Justice Chan said there was no need to deal with this issue, as SBST is in compliance with the statutory limits, according to sample rosters it submitted.

Any disputes on this can be resolved by the Commissioner for Labour if they arise, but this provision is only for exceptional circumstances.

"If you employ just enough drivers and you find that in a situation where there is a shortfall due to some exigencies of service, every time you have to invoke this, that cannot be the way," he told SBST representatives in court.

"You must employ enough drivers to have some buffer to cater for exigencies of service such that you don't need to invoke statutory exceptions for permanently exceeding the limits."

Ms Tammy Tan, SBST's senior vice-president of corporate communications, told The Straits Times after the hearing: "The IAC has confirmed that we have acted in accordance with the Employment Act in relation to the bus captains' prescribed rest days, working hours and overtime.

"The IAC also found that the bus captains' terms are equal to or more favourable than those that they are entitled to under the Employment Act.

"We thank the IAC for recognising that we have not only acted in accordance with our obligations, but have gone further for the benefit of our bus captains."

NTWU executive secretary Melvin Yong said: "The National Transport Workers' Union will continue to work closely with SBST to ensure that the terms in our collective agreement remain competitive and are always beneficial to our members.

"We will continue to do our best, to serve the interests of our members."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.