Key areas to tackle in protecting workers' rights

Workers have much to cheer about of late and not just because of the annual Labour Day celebrations.

Their cause for cheer are two back-to-back announcements by the Manpower Ministry (MOM) which, when implemented, will be to their benefit.

The first is a proposal to set up a labour tribunal to help those caught in pay disputes with their employers. The tribunal will open its doors to all local employees, regardless of how much they earn.

The second concerns a mediation panel that now helps professionals, executives and managers (PMEs) who are union members resolve problems with their bosses. The MOM said the scope of the panel could be expanded to include rank-and-file workers, as well as those who earn more than the current $4,500 monthly salary cap.

Between the two, the impact of the tribunal will be more wide-ranging as it stands to benefit all 2.1 million local workers. By contrast, the mediation panel will cover only the 600,000 or so local workers who are union members, should its coverage be expanded.

A labour tribunal is an independent statutory body given powers under the law to hear and rule on employment disputes. It is found in places like Australia, Britain and Hong Kong.

Although Singapore does not have a labour tribunal, the current labour court has some features of it.

For example, it is presided over by a commissioner of labour instead of a sitting judge, and lawyers are barred from taking part in its proceedings. This allows the hearings to be less litigious and costly, and speedier.

The idea of a new labour tribunal was mooted by Member of Parliament Hri Kumar Nair during the Budget debate in March. A tribunal, said the senior counsel at law firm Drew and Napier, will allow all employment disputes and grievances to be heard quickly at low cost.

As the MOM discusses its ideas behind closed doors with unions and employers over the next few months, there are at least four areas which I hope they will mull over. These will decide whether the tribunal is effective or falls flat.

First, it should aim to be inclusive rather than exclusive, which means that it should try to cover more issues, rather than fewer.

Right now, one indication is that the tribunal would cover only two broad areas - disputes under the Employment Act and salary disputes arising from employment contracts, including commissions and bonus payments.

This coverage is too narrow.

The Labour Court already hears disputes under the Employment Act. If only salary disputes are added into the mix, the tribunal may not cover the full range of employment-related disputes.

There are at least two other types of work-related disputes that should also be given a hearing. The first type is discrimination complaints, including that of employers preferring foreigners over locals, and disputes related to re-hiring of older workers.

Anti-discrimination watchdog Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) received more than 470 complaints last year. The numbers have risen substantially from just 110 in 2010. This shows that discrimination, whether perceived or real, is a growing problem.

Apart from issues, there is also the matter of the claims limit, and the MOM has made it plain that there will be one. That is unlike the situation in Hong Kong, where the labour tribunal does not limit the claim amount.

As for a salary cap, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary general Patrick Tay hopes that there will not be one while Mr Nair said that the cap should not be set too low.

Any limit set on the claims will make the tribunal less accessible, so the MOM will have to find the right balance as it sets the bar.

Second, the tribunal has to be transparent about its work.

The current lack of information on the labour court and its workings is glaring.

Besides a general description of the court on its website, the MOM does not give any details on the number of cases it handles, what the cases were about or the outcome of the complaints.

When asked about the number of cases before the labour court in the past three years, the ministry would say only that it handled nearly 8,000 "employment claims" last year. It is unclear what these were or how the numbers compared with previous years.

The ministry could take a look at the Fair Work Commission in Australia. The tribunal lists on its website all the decisions it made from 2000, with a comprehensive search engine thrown in.

A tribunal that is shrouded in secrecy risks undermining public confidence in its decisions.

For the tribunal to be effective, it is also important that the public be educated on how the system works. This is the third ingredient.

A reader e-mailed me after news of the tribunal broke, complaining that her boss was a slave-driver and asking whether she could complain to the tribunal.

Besides finding the e-mail amusing, it also helped me see how much work the MOM has to do to cut down on frivolous complaints. The solution is to run a sustained public education drive, which the ministry's established public relations machinery should have no problems doing.

Fourth, unions cannot be left out of the fray.

While unionists lined up to support the tribunal after MOM broached the idea, I saw worried looks on their faces. If all workers can bring their disputes to the tribunal, why would they join unions?

This brings into question the curious case of the mediation panel to help PME union members.

Set up by the MOM, NTUC and Singapore National Employers Federation, the panel has handled a paltry 13 cases since it was set up in 2011, which the MOM said were mostly resolved.

In contrast, unions handled more than 2,400 complaints involving mostly salary and termination disputes last year. This shows the vast experience that unions have in diffusing workplace tensions.

In Britain, it is compulsory for those taking their cases to the Employment Tribunal to go for conciliation first.

Perhaps the tripartite mediation panel can be upgraded into a compulsory mediation stop, where unions can represent the workers, before cases go to the tribunal for hearing.

This will play on the unions' strength and track record in resolving disputes without having to overload the tribunal with all cases. It will also give unions a direct role in resolving disputes without them having to wonder whether they would be made irrelevant by the new tribunal.

So far, the MOM has played coy and would not commit to what form the tribunal would take or when it would be rolled out, buying time for closed-door talks.

That is fine for now, but public expectations of the tribunal will remain high. After all, in one unprecedented swoop, the ministry has extended salary protection to all local workers.

Taken together with the other changes in the pipeline - the Employment Act is up for review again and the Fair Consideration Framework kicks in later this year - the message the ministry is sending is clear: The balance is tilting towards protecting workers.

That is something workers in Singapore can cheer about.

This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.

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