Alert MOM to layoffs early: Teo Ser Luck

Employers planning to lay off workers should notify the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as early as possible so that the affected staff can receive more timely help, said Mr Teo Ser Luck.

The Minister of State for Manpower issued the "reminder" yesterday amid growing concern over job cuts - and worries among trade unionists that companies are quietly axing workers in small batches in an attempt to avoid bad publicity.

Speaking to The Straits Times yesterday on the sidelines of a community event, Mr Teo said most companies are working closely with government agencies on retrenchment matters. Still, there is room for improvement.

"When companies know that they are facing some decline and have to, unfortunately, go through certain retrenchment exercises, we hope that they will come forward to MOM and agencies quicker, and tell us earlier," Mr Teo said.

In the last few months, several financial services firms have reportedly trimmed staff, including ANZ Banking Group, hedge fund Tudor Investment and investment bank Goldman Sachs.

ANZ told The Straits Times that it provides regular reports to MOM, "in line with its requirements and our practice of keeping our stakeholders informed".

Singapore does not mandate that companies report retrenchments to the authorities, but encourages that they volunteer the information out of goodwill.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told Parliament earlier this month that compulsory reporting was still controversial as companies were concerned that such notifications would affect confidentiality.

But given the economic slowdown, unionists are worried there could be a hike in the number of companies that are not informing the authorities of the layoffs.

It also means that the Government might not be getting an accurate picture of the number of retrenchments in Singapore, added Ms K. Thanaletchimi, president of the Healthcare Services Employees' Union and a Nominated MP.

"It's a cause for concern for me because I have a feeling small and medium-sized enterprises with 10 or 15 employees are not likely to notify the ministry," said Ms Thanaletchimi, who has raised the issue in Parliament.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay told The Straits Times that he has encountered between 10 and 20 such cases in the past six months.

"I wouldn't say it is rampant. But for every one person who approaches us, his company could have laid off 20 to 30 people who aren't union members, or just don't come to us for help," Mr Tay said.

"Disguised retrenchment", as Mr Tay, who is also an MP, had called it in Parliament recently, could come in the form of a "golden handshake", or by making it look like the worker had resigned voluntarily.

Such layoffs are hard to track, prompting some unionists to ask MOM to make it compulsory for companies to notify it if retrenchments occur.

But Mr Jeffrey Ng, director at HR consultancy Michael Page Singapore, noted that it is not always possible for companies to give government agencies a heads-up as transition plans need to be in place before any announcement can be made.

"Most times, a retrenchment exercise, especially if senior management is part of the departure, is highly sensitive and confidential," Mr Ng said.

But early notification ensures that unions and agencies such as the Singapore Workforce Development Agency have time to help those affected, say unionists.

The good labour management relationship between Resorts World Sentosa and the Attractions, Resorts and Entertainment Union (AREU), for instance, proved useful when the resort operator axed about 400 workers in June.

AREU executive secretary Desmond Choo, said: "They gave us good advance notice of about a month. This gave us enough time to provide our input on how best we could help the workers find other jobs."

This article was first published on September 28, 2016.
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