New tribunal for salary disputes to be launched by April

New tribunal for salary disputes to be launched by April
White collar workers seen during lunch time in the CBD. TODAY file photo
Published: 4:00 AM, August 17, 2016
Updated: 7:34 AM, August 17, 2016

SINGAPORE — The Employment Claims Tribunals, which will hear salary-related disputes for all workers regardless of income levels, will be up and running by April next year, with laws providing for its establishment passed in Parliament yesterday, even as parliamentarians felt the law could have gone further to better serve workers.

To be set up under the State Courts, the tribunal will assume the Labour Court’s role of hearing statutory salary-related disputes. These include unpaid salary and maternity benefits, and claims of up to S$20,000 from all workers, from interns under a contract of service to professionals. The limit is S$30,000 for cases mediated with union or tripartite involvement.

The tribunal will also preside over employees’ contractual salary-related claims, including the payment of bonuses and allowances. The tribunal will also hear claims from employers for notice pay.

Claims can only be filed after parties have first attempted mediation at a new centre called Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, also to be set up by next April. Resolutions at mediation sessions are legally binding and can be enforced by the courts. At the tribunal, parties cannot be represented by lawyers, and cases will be heard by legally qualified magistrates.

Right now, the Labour Court adjudicates salary-related claims for workers covered under the Employment Act who earn up to S$4,500 a month. Those with larger pay cheques must file their claims with the civil courts, which entails a long and costly process.

The new tribunal, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament yesterday, will “help more employees resolve more types of salary-related disputes with their employers”. He did not share the number of such disputes, but last May, he told the House that the Labour Court heard about 1,630 salary-related disputes in 2014.

Non-salary related disputes, including unfair dismissals, will continue to be handled by the Commissioner for Labour.

Twelve Members of Parliament (MPs) rose to speak on the Bill yesterday. They asked about the adequacy of the claim limits and the tribunal’s scope, and raised concerns about the ability of some employees to represent themselves. Workers’ Party Non-Constituency MP Daniel Goh asked if the S$20,000 limit was too low for professionals, managers and executives, as it was less than five months’ salary for those earning S$4,500 monthly. He suggested prescribing different classes of claimants according to their salary range and setting different claim limits accordingly.

Mr Zainal Sapari (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said claimants without the capacity and knowledge may not be able to represent themselves adequately during mediation or at the tribunal. Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) pointed out that employers, on the other hand, can appoint a legally trained employee to represent them.

Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) felt the tribunal could have also encompassed other workplace disputes. Said Mr Gan: “I am disappointed that other workplace disputes, such as emotional and physical abuse, discrimination and unfair dismissal, cannot be resolved through this tribunal.”

Mr Tan noted that unfair dismissal and discrimination could form part of the “matrix” in some salary disputes. “It may be an injustice to employees or employers if the tribunal were to disregard such issues or evidence completely,” he said. Other MPs stressed the need to keep fees affordable. Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC) noted the costs of proceedings should be “reasonable and not deter workers”, while Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) said fees for claims should be waived for those in financial difficulty.

Responding to the issues raised as well as on whether the claim limits were too low, Mr Lim said there was currently no limit on claims made by rank-and-file workers. However, the Government found that for rank-and-file workers, “S$20,000 is more than adequate”. The figure would be reviewed “from time to time”, he added.

As for whether the tribunal could be expanded to hear non-salary-related disputes, Mr Lim said the tripartite partners felt the tribunal should start with resolving salary-related disputes, before enlarging its scope in future.

On not allowing legal representation, Mr Lim said this was to ensure workers were not disadvantaged, because employers are more likely to be able to afford such representation. A claimant’s next-of-kin may apply to the courts to serve as deputy under the Mental Capacity Act, he added.

Agreeing that fees should be kept affordable, Mr Lim said the Government would consider suggestions on doing so, including having fees tiered according to claim amounts, while fees would be waived for “deserving” low-wage workers. For vulnerable local workers mired in situations where companies may have shuttered and cannot make payment, Mr Lim said his ministry was in the process of establishing a short-term relief fund to help such workers.