Request vs require: Bus driver suing SBS Transit says made to work excessive OT, company says his calculations wrong

Mr Chua Qwong Meng contended that SBS Transit had breached the Employment Act.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - A former SBS Transit (SBST) bus driver alleged that he was made to work more than the legal limit of 72 hours of overtime a month on multiple occasions, as the hearing into an employment suit opened in the High Court on Tuesday (March 22).

In the closely watched test case against the transport operator, Mr Chua Qwong Meng also contended that there were several instances when he worked for seven consecutive days or more before having a day off.

Mr Chua, 62, who worked for SBST from April 2017 to February 2020, contended that the company had breached the Employment Act and his employment contract by failing to roster one rest day in a week.

SBST said it will present evidence that Mr Chua did not work more than 72 overtime hours in any one month.

It said there were "serious problems" with his calculations, which were based on handwritten documents of unclear origin that did not correctly reflect his working hours.

The transport operator contended that Mr Chua's claim about its rostering was "baseless".

SBST said Mr Chua was rostered a rest day each calendar week, which was in compliance with the law and the contract.

Mr Chua, who is seeking unspecified damages, is one of 13 bus drivers who filed separate lawsuits against SBST in relation to working hours, overtime pay and rest days, among other things.

In 2019, the Industrial Arbitration Court ruled that the terms of collective agreements between SBST - which employs about 5,900 bus drivers - and the National Transport Workers' Union do not breach the Employment Act.

The plaintiffs are represented by lawyer Lim Tean, who took over the case after they discharged their former lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, in November last year. Mr Chua's suit is being heard as a test case.

He contends that he was underpaid for his overtime work and that rest and meal times should be factored as part of working hours.

In its employment contracts, SBST requires its drivers to work 48 hours a week, including four hours of what it calls "built-in" overtime.

SBST, which is represented by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh, said the 48 hours include at least 4.5 hours of rest and meal times per week.

This means Mr Chua's scheduled work hours were 43.5 hours, within the 44-hour limit under the Act.

SBST said Mr Chua was always paid at an overtime rate for working beyond the 43.5 hours.

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As for the rest days, SBST contended that the law allows employers to roster employees for rest days on any day of the week.

SBST's method of rostering, which was in place before Mr Chua joined the company, was to rotate rest days from Monday to Sunday in a seven-week cycle, with two consecutive rest days being seven days apart.

This means that rest days are rostered on Monday one week, on Tuesday the next week, and so on.

SBST said Mr Chua's claim that he worked for seven or more consecutive days was a "red herring" because the issue is whether he was rostered one rest day in a calendar week.

At one point, Mr Chua told the court through a Mandarin interpreter that he was asked to work on rest days "all the time".

"I can't disagree with the request," said Mr Chua, who believes that his bonus would be penalised if he did not agree.

Mr Singh replied: "My instructions are that whenever SBST wanted a bus captain to work on a rest day, it would not require, but it will make a request."

The trial continues on Wednesday.

This article was first published in The Straits TimesPermission required for reproduction.