Friday 7 December 2012

SNEF urges employers to put in place grievance handling procedures for workers

By S Ramesh, Channel NewsAsia, 5 Dec 2012

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) has released its advisory on employee grievance handling.

This follows the illegal strike by a group of bus drivers from China, employed by transport operator SMRT.

In a statement, the federation said it has emailed the advisory to nearly 20,000 employers.

Together, they cover nearly 2 million employees or 63 per cent of the Singapore workforce.

The federation has strongly urged employers - both large and small - to put in place grievance handling procedures or to renew them, to ensure that they are relevant to the needs of workers.

There should be timelines for resolution, avenues for appeals, and alternative third party channels for advice, conciliation, mediation or arbitration.

It added employers must ensure that all involved, especially HR supervisors and line managers, are trained adequately to deal with employee grievances.

The federation said it is mindful that building good employee and employer relations would require more than just proper grievance handling procedures, which it said are part of responsible employment practices.

The SNEF said it is confident that employers will rise to the challenge of improving their engagement process with their workers, in the light of an increasingly diverse workforce.

On the strike by the China bus drivers on 26 and 27 November 2012, the federation said it was distressed by the incident and seriously concerned over the issues that have surfaced.

It said it has also taken heed of the call by Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin for employers to ensure that lines of communications are kept open and proper grievance handing procedures are in place.

The SNEF said in its advisory that grievances may fall under four categories, and these are company practices like leave management, wages like salary, overtime pay and bonus, working conditions and inter-personal relations.

Mr Stephen Lee, President of SNEF, also spoke about companies looking at business continuity plans in the wake of work stoppages.

"In view of this incident, some companies especially those who use large number of foreign workers may have to reassess the situation and put in place proper procedures of business continuity plans in the event of an industrial strike," he said.

Responding to the SNEF's advisory, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said he is confident labour relations will be strengthened.

"Tripartism for us in Singapore is strong. Like with all things, is it perfect? No. There are tensions. My message to the employers and the unions is that tensions will increase because increasingly the individual stakeholders expect the unions to speak up.

"As a result of that, more things will be played out in public rather than behind closed doors. What it therefore demands is actually greater trust being built up, the partnership needs to be a lot more stronger, and that is part and parcel of the development of the landscape."

Mr Raymond Yip, Senior Manager, Group HR of Qian Hu Corp Ltd, said: "We support the advisory and will update the grievance handling section in our staff handbook, which is on our staff interactive system. All staff can access this from company terminals or from their own personal PC. Top leadership supports an open communication policy.

"All recruits are given a comprehensive orientation including work culture, grievance handling process and are encouraged to raise any issues with their supervisors and managers. We also have quarterly staff dialogue sessions for management to brief staff on developments and answer questions raised anonymously."

Also giving his full support, Mr Gan Yee Chin, Deputy General Manager of Han's F&B Pte Ltd, said: "We have a section on grievance handling in our staff handbook and we intend to improve it based on the advisory. We will also disseminate the good practices of Basic Grievance Handling Procedure to all outlet managers and supervisors in Han's.

"In addition, we will share the SMRT incident as a case study to all staff in the next operation meeting. Also, the HR department will send more staff especially outlet managers to attend tripartite training workshop to improve their skills in handling unhappy staff. We will also be conducting employee perception surveys regularly to gauge our work climate."

The Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) urged employers of essential services to pay special attention to review their employee grievance handling procedures.

Its Chief Executive David Ang said SHRI is also ready to help companies strengthen their advisory procedures or help them prepare and roll them out.

SNEF said it will monitor how employers respond to the advisory over the next few months.

SMRT should be more like SBS: Labour chief
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2012

LABOUR chief Lim Swee Say yesterday lamented the illegal strike by SMRT's bus drivers, saying it could have been avoided if its management, union and workers had worked as a team like they do at SBS Transit, Singapore's other public transport operator.

Making his first public comments on the two-day strike last week, Mr Lim held up SBS as a good model of management and labour relations that he hopes will become widespread in Singapore.

He pointed out that more than 90 per cent of SBS bus drivers from China are union members, empowering union leaders to represent them.

"More importantly, the management at SBS Transit also recognises the positive and constructive role of the unions," said the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress.

He was speaking at a press conference after an NTUC seminar to work out its plans for next year.

At SMRT, only 10 per cent of its drivers from China are union members, according to union sources.

But since the "unfortunate" strike by the 171 drivers from China over pay and living conditions, immediate steps have been taken to repair the rift, said Mr Lim.

The SMRT union is explaining to the China national drivers their rights to join the union. Some of them think they have no need for it or are not allowed to, he said.

Also, the SMRT management has been asked to take a "more enlightened approach" towards the union representing its transport workers, he added. "Instead of resisting or limiting the role of the union, why not embrace the union as a partner?" he said.

Mr Lim also welcomed the advisory to bosses issued by the Singapore National Employers Federation on Wednesday urging them to review their handling of workers' grievances.

But he found one omission: "It could have recognised the role of the union in the whole process."

Meanwhile, the unions are taking stock of how they can better help foreign workers, he said.

As for the protest by labour activists in Hong Kong on Wednesday against the way the SMRT drivers were treated, Mr Lim said it was "inappropriate" for unions of one country to dictate what another country should do and they should respect the different circumstances.

Unions step up efforts to protect foreign workers
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2012

THE recent bus driver strike has prompted several unions to push harder with efforts to get better protection for foreign workers' rights, with five of them hoping the high-profile incident will strengthen their case.

Some of them plan to bring up the strike during negotiations with bosses, in the hope that it will convince them to allow more foreign workers to join the unions, or to cover these workers under their collective agreements.

Others are also hoping it will prod more foreign workers into joining the unions. Only 11per cent of Singapore's 1.16million foreign workers are unionised.

The five unions have a combined membership of more than 120,000, and represent workers in manpower-heavy sectors that employ more than 800,000.

The unions are the National Transport Workers' Union, the Healthcare Services Employees' Union (HSEU), the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (BATU), the Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering Employees' Union (SMEEU), and the Food Drinks and Allied Workers' Union.

Most of them have had difficulty getting foreign workers onboard, mainly because employers have been uncooperative. Workers themselves are also generally not interested, as they do not see the need for union coverage or are turned off by the $9 monthly membership fee.

BATU president Nasordin Mohd Hashim said construction firms often stop union officers from visiting their worksites and dormitories. "The companies are worried that our union will give them a hard time, if their workers are unionised," he said.

Work permit holders form about 66per cent of the industry's 402,700 workers, but foreigners make up only 20per cent of BATU's 30,000 members.

A spokesman for Tiong Aik Construction acknowledged that firms in the sector are generally not keen on unionisation, as they do not want to be pushed into raising wages. Others believe workers are already well looked after, said Mr William Goh.

Tiong Aik's own employees are not unionised, but it pays its foreign workers at least $1,000 a month on top of footing their accommodation costs, he added.

"We often organise get-togethers and meetings with our employees. We already have channels of communication with them, and we often allow Manpower Ministry officials to visit them also."

Still, some unions have managed to convince both workers and bosses of the benefits of union membership. It comes with insurance coverage, they point out, which is a plus for workers in high-risk industries. SMEEU has unionised almost all the foreign workers in the four shipyards it covers.

Unions also have difficulty getting foreigners onboard because the latter are often not covered by the collective agreements that cover workers' wages, bonuses and benefits. These usually cover only permanent staff, who tend to be locals and Malaysians, and exclude foreigners on contracts.

Unions say it has been difficult to change this. "It can be messy, as the worker has already agreed to terms stated in his contract before coming here," said SMEEU president Wong Weng Ong.

Still, unions are determined to get equal representation for all their members. "It is only fair," said HSEU president K. Thana-letchimi."It would be good for our union to be able to fully represent the foreign workers, so as to thwart any incident similar to what happened at SMRT."

Employers urged to engage with foreign workers on grievance channels

By Olivia Siong, Channel NewsAsia, 6 Dec 2012

Human resource experts say it is important for employers to engage with their foreign workers in light of the two labour disputes that have taken place in the past weeks.

They said more can be done to ensure employees have and are aware of the right avenues to air their grievances.

The two labour disputes involving foreign workers have been in the limelight.

And it has been called a "wake-up call" for employers.

So what steps should employers take next?

The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) had earlier urged employers to put in place or re-look their grievance handling procedures. And in light of the current climate, human resource experts say it is timely for companies to reassure and communicate with their workers.

Mr David Ang, Executive Director of Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI), said: "What I think companies should do is really to call a briefing or call a communication session with the foreign workers to explain to them that this thing has taken place, why it has taken place and what is wrong in the course of the action that has been taken by this group of people.

"And explain to them that if you do have an issue, and you do have a problem, bring it up to your supervisor. And to some extent, communicating in the language which the workers can best understand will be key to making sure the message goes down."

The Association of Employment Agencies said most foreign workers are aware of the channels to air their problems.

But more can be done.

Ms K Jayaprema, President of the Association of Employment Agencies, said: "What the Ministry of Manpower, maybe what they can do is to include these information they're handing to their workers, a little bit more about the policies, the rules, the regulations of the laws against strikes in Singapore. I think that's what they should include.

"Apart from sounding out to employees about their rights, I think we are looking at the roles and responsibilities of employees also."

Employers also have a part to play.

Experts said clear terms and conditions for workers should be set out in black and white by companies who engage employment agencies.

Mr Ang added: "The bigger companies would certainly have this. But again, down at the ground level, during the course of the recruitment process itself, there could be cases of misrepresentation and so on. So a company must be aware, and be constantly checking on the accuracy of the information given to the workers."

Ms Jayaprema added: "Employers are being informed, it's really whether the employer wants to pass this message down to the employee. So I think it's really the responsibility on the employer now. You can only do so much to educate people, but I think it's the employers who should be more serious about how they are going to manage their workforce."

And experts say it will take two hands to clap to ensure the welfare of foreign workers are looked after.

More help at hand for foreign workers
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2012

THE bus drivers' strike shows some foreigners working here still have no idea where to turn to for help, a group set up to champion their cause said yesterday.

More must be done to educate them about the channels they can go through if they have grievances, said the Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC).

In the wake of last week's illegal strike by Chinese nationals, the organisation has decided to cast its net wider. It will start visiting workers who live in smaller dormitories and team up with grassroots organisations to visit those staying in rented HDB flats.

At present, its staff go to larger, purpose-built dorms and organise events in areas where foreigners hang out, such as Little India.

The centre also plans to revive talks with employer groups, which were stopped a few years ago due to a lack of resources. These will cover topics including foreign workers' rights and their bosses' responsibilities.

MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang said: "As long as there remain pockets of migrant workers who are unsure or just do not know of the available help, it can be argued that we have to do more and step up our efforts to educate our migrant workers on the availability of help channels for them."

The centre, which opened in 2009, hopes its track record of helping foreigners in need will convince them to come forward.

Its executive director, Mr Edmund Ng, said more than 70 per cent of those who came to the centre for help ended up either receiving salary owed to them by their firms, being allowed to stay in Singapore to find work or having their injury claims fast-tracked.

The centre helped about 1,500 people last year, up from around 1,200 in 2009. It was set up by the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation to help foreign workers in trouble. Mr Ng believes those who have received assistance and rejoined the workforce "are the greatest source of advocacy" for the centre.

One success story involves a group of more than 20 Indian and Bangladeshi workers, who are being given food and lodgings by the MWC at a dorm in Kranji.

Their boss at a scaffolding company evicted them from the house where they were living and owes each of them between $2,000 and $9,000 in unpaid salaries. The centre successfully appealed to the Manpower Ministry to allow them to stay in Singapore to work.

As none of them has yet found employment, it is trying to have them included in the ministry's temporary job scheme, which helps workers in disputes with their bosses to find positions.

The men said they had been told that their boss would be declared bankrupt soon.

"At least we can stay on to work and earn more money for our families," said Mr K. Manikandan, 25.

Mr John Gee, an executive committee member of migrants' organisation Transient Workers Count Too, said some foreigners may not go to the centre because it is "not as vocal and strong in its views as compared to other groups".

Ms Bridget Tan, chief executive of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), said companies should improve their human resources practices to help foreign employees settle their grievances internally.

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