With Phase Two of Singapore’s reopening starting on Friday (June 19), many businesses will be reopening and, employees, returning to work.

For manicurist Mary (not her real name), her friends either had their salaries cut or were laid off during the Covid-19 outbreak, so she was relieved – even grateful – when her employer told her that she would be receiving her full basic pay of $2,100 last month and this month.

Soon, though, she was disappointed after her boss told staff they would have to “return the working hours” by putting in 50 hours of overtime when business resumed after the end of the circuit breaker. Her 14 days of annual leave entitlement would also be reduced to seven days.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the 30-year-old Malaysian work permit holder told The Straits Times in Mandarin: “I don’t know if this is allowed under the MOM’s regulations. But I feel that it is unfair as my boss has received help from the Singapore Government. She also did not explain how she came up with the 50 hours of overtime.”

Many employees have found themselves in the same situation as Mary, disgruntled because they are caught in a bind by what they feel are unfair employment practices.

Some have reached out to their MPs or turned to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for advice.

When told of Mary’s situation, an MOM spokesman said her employer was not “unreasonable”.

The spokesman explained that the employer had borrowed the concept of time-banking, which allows employees to be paid now for work to be done later.

“Overall, it appears that Mary would be paid her full basic salary for three months, while the employer has only asked her to consume part of her annual leave entitlement and time-banked less than two weeks of unworked hours,” she said.

“As Mary is a Malaysian work permit holder, her employer would not have received any Jobs Support Scheme payout and only the foreign worker levy rebate of $750 each month, while her basic salary is much higher at $2,100.”

The spokesman said that since March 12, over 4,000 companies have informed MOM of their cost-saving measures. More than 120 companies have applied to implement time-banking, a sharp jump from last year when only six did so.

“Time-banking is a viable way for employers to manage costs and optimise the use of manpower, while supporting their employees with full pay during business downtime,” she said. “The flexible work schedule allows for employers to offset time-banked hours as future overtime payment, while employees are still protected from being overworked as the working hours and overtime cap under the Employment Act still apply.”

The companies that had applied for time-banking are mainly in the food and beverage, hotel, retail and manufacturing sectors.

Labour MP Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) believes time-banking is generally done out of good intentions. “For those companies that do not receive the 75 per cent wage subsidies outside of the circuit breaker, this can help them manage business costs and retain manpower,” said Mr Tay, assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress.

“However, this must be implemented fairly. In unionised companies, there are controls put in place for such a practice as it is a negotiated position between union and management. For example, limits on the number of hours to time-bank, the redemption rate, etc. In addition, this is also subject to MOM’s approval.”

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, is concerned that some employers may not implement time-banking fairly.

“It is not a practice that I will condone, making an employee sign an agreement to say that you owe me a certain number of hours. Then you are asking staff to commit hours way in advance… At the end of the day, the welfare of employees has to be taken care of as well. It cannot be a free market for unreasonable employment practices,” said Mr Lim, who feels that the ministry needs to closely monitor and intervene to prevent employers from abusing the system.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Gan Thiam Poh said he has received requests for help from residents who felt that their employers had resorted to unfair cost-cutting measures, including wage cuts, retrenchment and work redeployment.

Many of these requests have come from blue-collar workers working in small and medium-sized enterprises, said Mr Gan, who has referred such cases to MOM.

To ensure fair and responsible implementation of cost-cutting measures, MOM requires employers to submit measures they intend to undertake and it says it has found most of them to be fair and responsible.

The majority of complaints and disputes arose because of poor communication by employers, judging by what has been referred to MOM and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep).

“MOM and Tafep have stepped in to guide these employers on engaging their employees, so that they would understand and support the cost-saving measures, which were implemented to save their jobs and prevent retrenchment,” the MOM spokesman said.

Text: Joyce Lim / The Straits Times / June 2020
Additional text: Sally Manik
Featured image: seventyfourimages / Envato Elements