BARELY two weeks into the new year, news broke last Saturday that Surbana Jurong, a Temasek Holdings-owned infrastructure consultancy, had cut dozens of staff from its payroll.
Amid an uncertain economic outlook and a lacklustre labour market, the immediate thought was that those affected had been retrenched, but a company spokesman stressed to The Business Times that "about 50" Singapore-based employees had been let go purely for performance reasons, and that it was not a retrenchment exercise.
The number works out to less than 0.4 per cent of Surbana's 13,000-strong global workforce.
Responding to BT's queries, the spokesman said: "We categorically state that there was no retrenchment. In line with the company's continuous focus on being a high-performance-driven organisation, about 50 poor performers were released."
However, according to several released employees, who all spoke to BT on condition of anonymity, the number is probably much higher.
One senior ex-employee claimed that department heads had each been asked by the company's human resources team to submit a list of people to be considered for release.
More than 200 names were on the final list, including those of some employees based in Surbana's China and India offices; these included the so-called "poor performers" as well as those who were "unfairly downgraded" at the last performance appraisal, she said.
The National Trades Union Congress said that two of its affiliated unions - the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees' Union (SISEU) and the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union - had been told of the termination of 18 of their members employed by the Surbana Jurong group of companies.
Representatives of both unions met Surbana's management. When the discussions ended in deadlock, the case was flagged to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), said SISEU's executive secretary Sylvia Choo.
The unions will meet MOM officials again, with sources saying this session will likely take place on Tuesday morning.
Ms Choo said: "(They will) seek recourse for the affected members and ensure that they receive fair treatment during this process."
She added that the unions were also providing these employees with placement assistance by working with their network of unionised companies and the labour movement's Employment and Employability Institute.
An MOM spokesman confirmed that the ministry was looking into the "termination of employment" involving employees under the Surbana group of companies.
"Eighteen Surbana employees have been referred to MOM by the unions and we are providing assistance to them."
Several other affected ex-Surbana employees poured out their grievances to BT on Monday, saying that the news had come too suddenly and was poorly communicated.
A few questioned the timing of the cuts, given that the Chinese New Year is just around the corner.
One ex-employee claimed that he was given an ultimatum - either resign immediately or be terminated. He chose to resign, and found himself out of the company's doors just 90 minutes later, having hastily packed up his things.
Another worker, a foreigner, was abruptly told to leave, and his S-Pass was cancelled. Now holding a regular tourist visa issued by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, he has less than 30 days to find a job in Singapore, failing which he must return to his home country.
One person worried about the fact that Surbana had openly stated that those who were released were "poor performers". Released a couple of weeks ago, he maintained that he met his targets at the most recent performance appraisal and should not have been classified as such.
"Jobs are already hard to come by these days. If a prospective employer sees that I used to be from Surbana, he would associate me as a 'poor performer', which I'm not. There go my chances of getting hired," he said.
HR experts BT spoke to say it is a faux pas to flag an employee's performance as the main reason for letting him or her go.
Paul Heng, the founder and managing director of NeXT Career Counselling Group, said: "Once you cite performance as an issue, it opens up a can of worms. It's bad HR practice to do things like that.
"Every contract has a break clause. Just exercise the clause, in accordance with the contract, and give the employee, say, three months' salary in lieu of the notice period, and be done with it," he said.
Headquartered in Singapore, Surbana Jurong was formed in 2015 through the merger of urban planner Surbana International Consultants and industrial and infrastructure engineering design group Jurong International.
Surbana Jurong has been in the news several times in the last few months for making a number of major acquisitions at home and abroad.
It was announced last August that it had bought Australia-based engineering consultancy firm SMEC Holdings for S$400 million.
Two months later, it bought Aetos Holdings, a licensed auxiliary police organisation in Singapore, from Temasek for an undisclosed sum.
These acquisitions took Surbana's global workforce to almost 13,000 employees, spread across 95 offices in 40 countries in Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. Its annual turnover is around S$1.3 billion.
Surbana's board is chaired by Liew Mun Leong, who is also the chairman of Changi Airport Group.
The group chief executive is former Capitaland top executive Wong Heang Fine, while the current CEO (International) is Teo Eng Cheong, who headed trade promotion agency International Enterprise Singapore for five years until 2015.
This article was first published on Jan 17, 2017.
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