Debate on the amendments to the Employment Act

I am glad to note the introduction of some new protections for workers and some PMEs in this Bill. I have mentioned a few concerns about salary deductions, penalties, exemptions from work hour limit protections, compensation for holiday work and the powers of inspecting officers.

This was my speech during the debate the amendments to the Employment Act in Parliament, on 12 November 2013.

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Madam Speaker,

I will focus on the amendments to the Employment Act in this Bill.

Section 30 – Deductions

I have several questions regarding the amendments to Section 30 pertaining to deductions for accommodation, amenities and services provided by employers to their workers.

First, how is the value of these deductible expenses determined? Has MOM conducted any inspections to determine if the prices charged by any employers are excessive?

Second, is the value of the accommodation based on the actual cost or the market value? If it is based on market value, these employers could potentially profit from providing accommodation to their workers, since private market rentals are very high. I note that Section 27(1)(c) allows for deductions for only the actual cost of meals, but Section 27(1)(d) does not specify “actual cost of accommodation”. Can the wording of the latter be changed so that employers are only allowed to deduct for the actual cost of accommodation?

Third, what can “amenities” and “other services” include? Unscrupulous employers could potentially throw in anything as a service or amenity, in order to deduct their workers’ salaries and reduce costs. I understand that some workers earning less than $800 per month still face deductions to their salaries. This could lead to financial hardship for them and their families, as their salaries may fall even further below subsistence levels. Would the Ministry consider prohibiting salary deductions for workers who earn below a subsistence threshold?

And fourth, I note that the protections under Section 30 are all still subject to mutual agreement between the worker and his employer. While one could argue that the worker is free not to sign the contract, in reality, most low wage workers are not in a strong bargaining position to refuse. This makes it more necessary for the law, and not just a contract, to protect the worker.

Section 34 – Penalties

Next, on penalties. This Bill specifies in Section 34 the penalties for failure to pay salary in accordance with the Act. A first-time offender will be liable to a fine of between $3,000 and $15,000 and/or six months’ jail, and a subsequent offence could double that.

Non-payment or late payment of salaries are a concern for many workers. Stiff punishment must be meted out to errant employers who fail to meet their obligations to their employees, in order to send a strong deterrent message.

However, the penalties do not guarantee that the worker will actually get paid what is owed him. While Section 134 stipulates that the court can order fines to be paid to the aggrieved worker, this is discretionary. Can the fines imposed be automatically paid to aggrieved workers, so that they receive all their salary arrears?

Section 40 – Exemptions from work hour limit protections

The amendments to Section 40 allow workers in “essential services” industries to work for more than 6 consecutive hours without a break or more than 12 hours a day, and without being paid for overtime work if it does not last for more than 3 weeks. Currently, this exemption is granted mostly for ad hoc work exigencies, like accidents, unforeseeable interruptions and urgent work, or defence and security duties.

This amendment could greatly increase the number of workers in Singapore who will not enjoy the work hour limit protections under Section 38(1). It will now include workers in broadcasting, newspaper and postal services, and even bulk distribution of fuel and lubricants, from among a list of 28 essential services listed in the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

What is the reason for including these new exemptions and in what way was the previous list of exemptions insufficient?

More importantly, how will the Ministry ensure that essential services workers are not made to work excessive hours without breaks, rest days or overtime pay, over an extended period of time?

Section 88 – Compensation for work during holidays

The insertion of a new subsection 4(A) in Section 88, increases flexibility for employers to compensate employees who work on holidays by granting them time-off in-lieu of overtime pay. It also specifies the number of hours of time-off in-lieu, depending on whether the employee worked a full day or half a day during the holiday.

Madam, holidays are very important for workers, as they provide them a day to spend with their families and recuperate from work. A disruption of a holiday due to work exigencies should be properly compensated by the employer.

This Bill allows the employer to grant only part of a day off to replace a full day of holiday work, “as may be agreed between the employee and his employer”.[1]

Why is it necessary to give this additional option to employers? It could give employers a way to avoid fully compensating their employees for holiday work, as the employee will find it hard to refuse a lower compensation.

Why not take away this option, so that it will be mandatory for employers to either compensate the employee with extra pay, or time-off in-lieu in proportion to the time spent working on the holiday?

Section 105 – Power to arrest

The Bill introduces a new Section 105, which gives inspecting officers the power to arrest without warrant persons suspected of committing offences under this Act. It includes powers to “use all means necessary to effect the arrest”. Section 105D provides for the inspecting officers to be armed.

Currently, Section 103 gives inspecting officers no such powers. They are allowed to examine, search and retain evidence, but not to arrest suspects.

I would like to ask the Minister why is there now a need to give inspecting officers powers to arrest and restrain people suspected of violating the Employment Act?

With these new powers, will inspecting officers be given the same level of training as police officers to ensure that they do not use excessive force when conducting the arrests or restraining suspects?

Salary thresholds

Lastly, the Bill raises the salary threshold for employees covered under the Employment Act to $2,500 for non-workmen but keeps it at $4,500 for workmen. According to MOM, this will allow the salary threshold of non-workmen to catch up gradually with workmen and, in the longer term, will allow the removal of the demarcation between these two groups of workers.

May I ask the Minister how long it will take to remove this demarcation, and what are the existing obstacles to its removal?

Summary

In summary, I am glad to note the introduction of some new protections for workers and some PMEs in this Bill. I have mentioned a few concerns about salary deductions, penalties, exemptions from work hour limit protections, compensation for holiday work and the powers of inspecting officers. I hope the Minister will address these concerns in his response.


[1] Section 4(A)(a).

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.