Thursday, 22 November 2018

Employment Act: Laws to protect workers' rights expanded to cover all employees from April 2019

Employment Act changes give workers greater protection
Updates reflect changing profile of Singapore's labour force, workplace practices: Manpower Minister Josephine Teo
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2018

The law that protects workers' rights has undergone a major transformation to include all private-sector employees, a move that will entitle them to rights such as paid sick leave, mandatory annual leave of seven to 14 days and protection against wrongful dismissal.

This means the Employment Act (EA) will no longer have a salary cap of $4,500 a month.

The move is among four categories of major changes Parliament approved yesterday and which will take effect in April next year.

The others are: Giving extra protection to more rank-and-file workers, improving the employment dispute resolution framework and giving employers greater flexibility to, say, compensate staff for working on public holidays.

With no salary cap, the Act will cover the growing pool of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs). But it will not cover public servants, domestic workers and seafarers, who are covered separately under other laws.

A major change in the expanded law is protection given to more workers under the section known as Part IV. This section sets out extra protection for rank-and-file workers in areas such as working hours, and payment for overtime work and rest days.

For rank-and-file white-collar workers, or non-workmen, the monthly salary threshold has been raised from $2,500 to $2,600, a move that brings another 100,000 workers under Part IV protection.

But for workmen - manual or blue-collar workers - Part IV protection will continue to cover those earning up to $4,500 a month.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, in introducing the Employment (Amendment) Bill for debate yesterday, said the updates - work on which began in 2012 - were to reflect the changing profile of Singapore's labour force and employment practices.

Back in 1968, when the law came into existence, managers and executives were a very small part of the workforce, she noted.

"Today, with the proportion of PMETs... expected to make up two-thirds of our local workforce by 2030, it is timely to make a more fundamental change to the coverage of the EA," she said.

This is why the salary cap of $4,500 will be removed, and this will benefit an additional 430,000 managers and executives.

Mrs Teo also highlighted some changes to the employment dispute resolution framework.

For example, salary-related disputes are now handled by the Employment Claims Tribunals, while wrongful dismissal claims are heard by her ministry.

From April, the tribunal will handle both, a move Mrs Teo said will give employees and employers a more convenient one-stop service.

Among the changes to give businesses greater flexibility, the Act will offer employers an added option: They can give non-Part IV workers time off for hours worked on a public holiday instead of a full day off or an extra day's pay.

The changes were welcomed and supported by all 17 MPs who spoke on them, including two from the Workers' Party (WP), with many giving ideas on how to further improve it.

Labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), a champion of the PMETs' cause, called it a "watershed moment" for such workers earning more than $4,500 a month.

"Some rogue employers tried to 'game' the Act by making use of the salary cap to exclude workers from the Act," he said.

Some wanted it to go further and protect vulnerable workers such as disabled people, baby boomers and the low-income elderly.

Several, such as Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh of the WP, called for the removal of the distinction between white-and blue-collar workers, while a few, such as Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC), wanted provisions for the growing number of "gig" workers.

Mrs Teo responded to the MPs' suggestions in a 40-page reply, in which she also stressed that the EA exists to regulate employment practices in a balanced way and protect workers while retaining labour market flexibility for businesses to thrive and create jobs.

Protecting workers under Employment Act: Five top concerns
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 21 Nov 2018

MPs gave the nod to changes made to the Employment Act to give rights and protection to all workers, saying the much broader coverage is timely, given the way Singapore's workforce has evolved over the years.

But during yesterday's debate in Parliament on the Employment (Amendment) Bill, they also raised some concerns and pointed to gaps in the law.

Here are some key issues they highlighted.


Many MPs supported the expansion of the Employment Act, which, from next April, will no longer have a monthly salary cap of $4,500.

Several said its removal, which will extend the law's core provisions to all private-sector workers, is timely because higher-paid professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) are expected to form two-thirds of the local workforce by 2030.

Said labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC): "This is a radical step forward, given that just a decade ago, PMEs were not even covered under the Act." Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) agreed: "Everyone deserves to have their rights guaranteed, regardless of the nature of work and income drawn."

Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) noted that as Singapore becomes a digital economy, the proportion of PMETs will continue to grow.


Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh of the Workers' Party and labour MP Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) asked why the salary threshold for non-workmen - rank-and-file white-collar workers - covered by Part IV of the Act was raised by just $100, to $2,600.

Part IV gives extra protection to these workers, as well as blue-collar workmen earning up to $4,500, in areas such as payment for overtime work and rest days.

Mr Zainal noted that the increase does not keep pace with the rise in Singapore's median income, which has grown from $2,500 in 2010 to $3,300 last year.

Associate Professor Goh added that the increase should have been more substantial to better protect white-collar workers, whose jobs have become more vulnerable because of technological disruption.

Manpower Minister Josephine Teo replied that the Government's longer-term intent is to close the gap between the salary thresholds of workmen and non-workmen.

She also said the $100 amount took into account the impact on both workers and employers.

"When benefits are upped, so too are the costs borne by employers," she added.


Prof Goh suggested that the Government commit to a timeframe to remove the distinction between workmen and non-workmen.

Similarly, Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said the distinctions between blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and managers should be replaced with a single inclusive term such as "employees" or "workers".

Mrs Teo responded that the distinction remained largely in Part IV, a section which regulates working hours, rest days and overtime payments, and is more applicable to workers who are not managers or executives.

"Including managers and executives, whose work tends to be more outcome-based, will make our laws much more rigid and prescriptive," she added.


Several MPs, including Nominated MP Walter Theseira and Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC), raised concerns about protection for the self-employed.

Dr Theseira noted that technology and new business models have widened the scope of self-employment, while also subjecting such workers to greater control.

This leads to a rising trend of technology platforms having all the benefits of control over the self-employed worker, but none of the statutory responsibilities under the Employment Act, he said.

Ms Pereira agreed, saying she has heard of workers in such hiring arrangements being unsure of their employment rights and entitlements and, therefore, at risk of exploitative practices.

Mrs Teo replied that a workgroup formed by her ministry to look into the self-employed's concerns has made a set of recommendations the Government has accepted and is implementing.


MPs welcomed the moves to enhance protection for workers against wrongful dismissal.

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), for example, noted that the changes will let aggrieved workers seek redress when they have been manipulated or forced to resign.

But others, such as Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), said the new Act does not define what constitutes dismissal without just cause or excuse.

"Without a clear definition, the protection against unfair dismissal may be ineffective because instances of unfair dismissal are often not clear cut and can be easily disguised," he said.

Mrs Teo replied that it would not be possible to define all scenarios of wrongful dismissal. Moreover, it is not a new Employment Act provision and there are many past cases which can be referred to for determining whether a dismissal is unfair, she said.

Nominated MP Douglas Foo, who is a vice-president of the Singapore National Employers Federation, said business leaders are concerned as well that the changes to the law may encourage more false claims of wrongful dismissal.

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