There are some pretty bad employers out there. Overworking and exploiting employees is fairly common in Singapore (the shame!), and anyone who works in the construction industry will tell you that workers' rights are routinely and brazenly transgressed by towkays who think they can get away with murder.
Now, unbeknownst to many people in Singapore, certain employees and workmen actually do have some semblance of rights, and it's even against the law for their employers to make them work overtime without OT pay (let's face it, virtually everybody in Singapore does craploads of OT).
The catch is whether you qualify as an "employee" under the definition of the Employment Act. The key part of the Act is Part IV, which provides for rest days, hours of work, annual leave and other conditions of service. You have to satisfy the following:
- Are you an employee who is not a workman, and do you earn a basic salary of not more than $2,500? OR
- Are you a workman earning a basic salary of not more than $4,500?
If you answered "yes" to one of the above questions, then read on to find out how you can get your boss in trouble! If you answered "no", sorry, this part of the Employment Act doesn't consider you an "employee". You're a slave just like you've suspected all along.
So, employees, here are three situations that gazillions of Singaporeans face on a daily basis, but that are actually illegal for you.
Not getting paid for overtime work
It's no secret that Singaporeans work long, gruelling hours compared to, oh, everyone else in the world. In fact, the majority of the people I know work well over 44 hours a week.
But if you satisfy the above criteria and are a protected employee (and not a manager or executive), your employer is actually obliged to give you OT pay for any hours you work beyond your contractual working hours.
And for most 9-6 employees, contractual working hours mean you can work no more than 44 hours a week. That's actually not very much-if you have a 5-day work week, it means your working day is supposed to be a maximum of 9 hours. If you start work at 9am and have an hour-long lunch break, it means you can collect OT pay for working beyond 7pm. You're also technically not allowed to work more than 12 hours a day, and a maximum of 72 OT hours a month.
Since many Singaporeans work more than 9 hours a day and 19 per cent even work over 11 hours a day, if you're eligible for protection this is definitely something you want to take note of!
However, if you're eligible for OT pay, don't expect to get rich. While you should be paid 1.5 times of your usually hourly rate, for non-workmen, the amount of OT pay you can get is capped at $11.80 per hour.
It's a sad fact, however, that there are in fact many employees whose employers try to get around this rule, forcing them to work way beyond their contractual hours without offering OT pay, or even busting the limit of 12 hours a day.
Many of these employers get away with it by either taking advantage of the fact that the employee is clueless about his rights, or (as is common in the case of foreign employees who need their jobs to stay in Singapore) simply threatening to fire them.
Not being allowed to quit
It sounds crazy, but I actually know several people whose employers refused to accept their resignations when they threw that letter on their desk. One person I know tried to quit two or three times, but her boss (a lawyer, no less) tore up her resignation letter each time.
So long as you have clearly informed your boss you wish to quit, you don't have to bother about whether he or she engages in such theatrics. You just have to serve out your notice period, and then get the hell out of there.
If you're a foreigner and need your employer to co-operate with cancelling your employment pass, make sure you get hold of a copy of all documents you've signed, including your employment contract, before you try to quit. That way if your boss refuses to co-operate you have proof he's in the wrong.
Being made to serve a "bond" or repay employers for early termination
This is a trick Singaporean employers sometimes use to exploit foreign employees and make them too afraid to quit. The employees are told they need to serve out a bond period, and if they quit during that period they'll be made to pay a large sum of money for termination of employment contract.
Well, guess what? If your employment contract stipulates that you need to pay a penalty for quitting during your bond period, there's a good chance it can't be enforced.
The catch is that if your employer has actually lost money by hiring you, he may be able to illegally recover some of the money.
That being said, a great many of the employment contracts with this bogus bond clause are just plain unreasonable. If your employer is threatening to make you pay back x months' worth of salary if you leave, he might not actually be able to do that when you quit.
What can you do?
In certain cases, such as when your boss refuses to accept your resignation, you probably don't need a lawyer to get you out of this jam, since it's in your power to simply tell your boss to his face that you're going to quit no matter what he says, and then pack up your stuff on your last day.
In other situations, you might need to seek the help of a lawyer unless you're willing to represent yourself (and yes, that's an option). And let's face it, if you're earning a low enough salary to qualify for protection under the Employment Act, the prospect of paying legal fees isn't exactly a happy one.
One option is to attend the free legal clinics organised by the Law Society. You're basically given 15 minutes to ask a lawyer anything, so use your time well. Don't expect them to write up any documents for you or contact your employer or the authorities. But they can give you some basic advice that will give you an idea of what to do next. Register online on this site if you need a consultation. In a best case scenario, after attending the legal clinic you'll learn that you don't actually need a lawyer and can handle the situation on your own, which is rather ironic but oh well.
Also try posting your question on the Legal Help website. If you're lucky, one of the lawyers manning the website will respond. They're known to be quite responsive and a hell lot more coherent than the average Singaporean netizen.
There are some situations in which you might want to enlist the help of a lawyer, such as when your employer owes you a ton of money. If you qualify (that's a big "if" as their criteria are quite stringent), you might be able to get free legal aid.
This article first appeared in MoneySmart
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