From demerit points to pay cuts and even chiding staff in public, employees claim some companies here are "unfair" towards workers who have to take medical leave.
Meanwhile, several companies The Sunday Times contacted said they do not punish such employees. Instead, they reward staff for staying healthy, dishing out bonuses and even restaurant vouchers.
The issue became a talking point after several Singapore Airlines (SIA) cabin crew members expressed unhappiness about the company's medical leave system earlier this month.
Crew members alleged they risk losing incentive points when they submit medical certificates (MCs) for common ailments like cough and cold.
These points are taken into account in the staff's annual appraisals, making up less than 5 per cent of the weighting.
Meanwhile, several crane operators at PSA Singapore told The Sunday Times about its alleged practice of giving them "demerit points" - which are recorded - when they chalk up about eight days of MCs from private doctors.
This results in a lower "incentive" payout in their payroll that month.
One crane operator who was slapped with demerit points said: "Most of us just accept it. We are afraid we will be 'marked' and don't know who to go to for help."
Staff are encouraged to go to PSA-approved clinics but he claimed they are open only during office hours, and are located far from where he lives.
In response, a PSA spokesman said "there are measures to prevent abuse of the medical leave system", but did not elaborate.
The spokesman added: "As part of regular review, PSA assessed the measures in 2016 and has since been phasing out disciplinary action arising from poor attendance, choosing instead to encourage staff to adopt healthy lifestyles as part of our company culture.
"PSA also provides subsidies for visits to doctors, and we recognise MCs from all Singapore-registered doctors, including non-PSA-appointed doctors."
Then there is "Amy", a nurse at a private hospital, who claimed her manager would reprimand her in front of her colleagues whenever she mentioned she was feeling ill. As a result, she would sometimes go to work when she was feeling unwell. She declined to be named.
While some firms brandish the stick, others prefer to hand out carrots.
Restaurant Association of Singapore president Vincent Tan said many food and beverage establishments are already understaffed, and operations take a hit when an employee calls in sick.
"Bigger companies can move a server to another branch if it is busier and needs more help, or activate a part-timer.
"But for smaller ones, if a worker doesn't turn up, they can't do much," said Mr Tan, who is also the managing director of restaurant operator Select Group.
Employees at the group, whose portfolio includes the Texas Chicken and Peach Garden chains, may have the number of days of medical leave taken factored into their performance appraisal, though these are handled on a case-by-case basis, said Mr Tan.
The medical leave rate among its 2,000 employees is low, he added.
Employees in Singapore take about four to five days of medical leave a year.
An owner of a restaurant chain with multiple outlets across Singapore, who declined to be named, said employees who do not take medical leave that month are given a $100 bonus.
He feels the current debate on the medical leave system has been rather one-sided.
"Some people really make sure they take all 14 days (of medical leave). They treat it like annual leave.
"What if they have (faked an illness)? I myself did it when I worked in an office," he said.
"If we introduce a disciplinary act, they will look for work elsewhere. Is there an Employer's Act to protect us from irresponsible staff?"
Mr Andrew Tjioe, executive chairman of the Tung Lok Group of restaurants, said employees who do not take any medical leave in a year are rewarded with $500 dining vouchers.
He said taking medical leave is not a factor when an employee's performance is appraised.
Rather than imposing rules, the group focuses on educating its 700 staff across 27 outlets on values like respect and responsibility.
At Royal Plaza on Scotts, employees with perfect attendance are given $500 a year.
For every five consecutive years of perfect attendance, they get an extra five days of leave for one year.
The hotel's general manager Patrick Fiat said when employees do have to take medical leave, they do not have to submit a medical certificate but just call in sick.
He added: "This demonstrates the level of trust and respect the organisation places in them. In turn, they feel empowered to be responsible for their own work."
According to human resources agencies and union representatives, the practice of offering incentives appears to be more prevalent here, particularly in service sectors where the physical presence of workers is crucial - such as in security, food and beverage, and retail.
Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said: "It's about balancing the needs of employers, employees and co-workers... When you don't have a certain level of discipline, you need to put more people on standby mode, leading to higher operational costs."
Still, firms said they need to distinguish between those who are genuinely sick and those exploiting their medical leave entitlement. Reachfield Security & Safety Management's operations manager Raymond Chin said: "Usually we try to 'spot' the frequency of the medical leave taken and also if there is a specific pattern to the MCs taken... for example, when the medical leave (always falls) on a Friday or one day after pay day."
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ManpowerGroup Singapore's country manager Linda Teo said that a fair and well-designed performance appraisal should consider an employee's work performance, contributions and attitude - not just his medical leave record.
Said Ms Teo: "The weightage on medical leave record during performance appraisal usually constitutes a very small percentage and it serves as brownie points for those individuals who take ownership to stay healthy."
Mr Desmond Choo, director of the youth development unit at NTUC, said while companies which offer incentives might have good intentions, this could lead to problems such as people working when sick and infecting others.
In some cases, "employees are less motivated because they view the company as valuing work above their own welfare".
Mr Choo, who is an MP for Tampines GRC, said: "Singaporean workers are by and large hardworking, with a deep and strong sense of duty. Many choose to work without medical leave, even if no disincentives are in place."
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said employees with six or more months of service are entitled to up to 14 days of outpatient non-hospitalisation leave and 60 days of hospitalisation leave.
And he is entitled to his pay during that period, under the Employment Act.
Any employer who flouts the guidelines is guilty of an offence, and liable on conviction to a fine of up to $5,000; and for a second or subsequent offence, he is liable on conviction to a fine of up to $10,000 or to imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both.
An MOM spokesman added: "Employers should avoid penalising an employee solely based on his consumption of sick leave.
"Instead, in line with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, employers should adopt appraisal or performance management systems which are fair, objective and which take into consideration the employee's ability, performance and contributions."
Employees who feel they have been unfairly penalised for taking sick leave can approach the MOM for advice and assistance.
Help staff understand work-related benefits, say HR practitioners
From restaurant vouchers to extra pay, companies dangle a variety of incentives to motivate staff to stay healthy and cut down on medical leave.
However, when these incentives are cut or withdrawn, some employees complain. This is because they view the incentives as entitlements, human resource (HR) practitioners told The Sunday Times.
"Some employers use the cost savings to reward the employees, and there are those who use points during appraisals as incentives. The key is that the employers must be clear to position any health- related reward scheme as an incentive, and never as a penalty," said Ms Linda Teo, country manager of ManpowerGroup Singapore.
The Ministry of Manpower urges all employers "to clearly communicate their employment and work-related terms and benefits to employees to avoid any misunderstanding".
Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said: "It is a matter of how employers communicate certain HR policies in a more palatable way, so employees can understand why they are put in place."
•Additional reporting by Priscilla Goy, Adrian Lim, Linette Lai and Karamjit Kaur
This article was first published on Feb 12, 2017.
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