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Move to donate unused leave raises questions about work culture

Move to donate unused leave raises questions about work culture
PHOTO: The New Paper file

Travel restrictions and additional work as a result of the coronavirus mean many Singaporeans have not been able to clear their leave this year, although experts have encouraged workers to take breaks for their mental well-being.

Earlier this month, civil servants and public healthcare workers were given a longer period to clear their outstanding leave and the option to encash part of it.

Another employer has come up with a novel way of making use of unused leave - letting staff convert it into cash donations for charity. Nanyang Technological University announced last week that its faculty and staff have donated more than $10 million of their unused leave to support its students.

This approach has not yet taken hold here, but questions have been raised over whether it is a good idea for employees and if companies can afford leave donation schemes.

Labour economist Walter Theseira said many firms no longer permit leave encashment, and having a leave donation scheme will result in extra expenditure for businesses.

Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee added: "I suspect in these challenging economic times, few companies will implement such schemes, especially smaller ones which are facing large cash flow problems."

As for employees, there are worries that employers giving them the option to donate leave to charity, or holding up firms that do, could pressure people to do so in a manner detrimental to workers.

Prof Theseira said if implemented, leave donation schemes need to be rolled out with caution to avoid encroaching on leave entitlements of lower-wage workers.

"These workers may have very little leave entitlement and also face a lack of flexibility at work, and the presence of such schemes may encroach on those who need leave to attend to family or personal matters," he said.

What do workers think?

A Straits Times online survey of 474 people from last Thursday to Saturday found slightly over half the respondents wanted their employers to allow them to donate unused leave. While 81 per cent said they have unused leave, 55 per cent said they would support donating some of their days to charity.

Those who were keen on leave donation said they would prefer to donate to charity instead of being forced to clear days owing or to avoid having them forfeited.

They did acknowledge that charities may be in greater need of donations during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some of those who preferred not to donate their leave said they would rather spend time with their loved ones or be allowed to encash their days owed.

Others felt there were better ways to give to charity.

They underlined that people need to rest not just for productivity but also for their health, and using up their leave helps ensure this.

Some were concerned that allowing leave to be converted could encourage poor workplace culture to be perpetuated, including continuing to work while on leave.

The range of views on the idea could explain why only a handful of organisations, including the National University of Singapore (NUS), said schemes for staff to donate unused leave are in the works. Many prefer to urge employees to help the community in other ways.

Standard Chartered Bank started a volunteer leave scheme about 10 years ago that gives each employee three days a year to volunteer for causes they care about.

StanChart, which said its staff volunteer about 4,000 days a year, gave employees an extra day of volunteering leave this year to "support our community through the pandemic".

For Ms Celes Kweng, the bank's business administration and office manager of group property, one of the most memorable volunteering experiences was with 80 of her colleagues at charity Willing Hearts soup kitchen. Senior executives washed raw fish while others fried eggs, and this helped build camaraderie, she recalled.

At OCBC Bank, employees can carry forward up to 12 days of annual leave to next year instead of the usual seven, or choose to encash up to five days.

Mr Ernest Phang, OCBC head of corporate services, group human resources, said: "While we continue to strongly encourage our employees to take their annual leave... we also recognise that this is an exceptional year due to Covid-19 and therefore our employees would appreciate more flexibility with their leave plans."

Human resource experts said that while leave donation remains uncommon in Singapore, it might be a convenient way for employees to do good.

She said leave donation can help to boost employee morale and an organisation's corporate image.

Dr Zhang Weina, a senior lecturer in finance at NUS Business School, said all forms of giving should be encouraged, not just leave donation. For instance, 1,600 staff from Singapore's five polytechnics donated a combined $417,000 of their Solidarity Payments - $600 for each citizen - to support about 635 needy students.

Singapore National Employers' Federation executive director Sim Gim Guan lauded the donations made by NTU's faculty and staff.

He said: "The federation encourages employers to continue to do good together with their employees so that both their business and the community can do well together."

• Additional reporting by Ng Keng Gene

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