Which issues would you most highlight to someone new to your country?
Although Singapore’s employment and labour landscape is relatively straightforward and considered to be one of the least restrictive in Asia, it is quite dynamic at present.
The Employment Act, Singapore’s main labour legislation, will be amended at the end of 2018, with the changes likely to take effect in April 2019. Once these changes are in place, no further seismic changes to Singapore’s labour landscape are expected.
The government also publishes non-statutory guidelines, standards and advisories to encourage fair and progressive employment practices and provide guidance.
As regards policy, there is an increased focus on increasing the proportion of Singaporean employees in companies operating in Singapore, thereby making it harder to obtain work passes for foreigners.
Businesses that aim to commence operations in Singapore should seek specialist advice to ensure that they understand the latest developments and are legally compliant in their dealings with employees.
What do you consider unique to those doing business in your country?
Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, Singapore has a pro-employer labour and employment regime and there is greater flexibility for employers and employees to agree terms of employment. The minimum statutory entitlements are not prohibitive for most employers. The law is strongly upheld in Singapore in the event of any breaches by employers, but overall the labour compliance regime is simpler and Singapore adopts a light touch compared with other Southeast Asian jurisdictions.
Is there any general advice you would give in the employment area?
Given that the Singaporean courts uphold and give effect to the intention of parties, as evidenced in written contracts, properly drafted and regularly updated policies and contracts are essential.
Emerging issues/hot topics/proposals for reform
Are there any noteworthy proposals for reform in your jurisdiction?
The government is substantively amending the Employment Act to extend its scope to all managers and executives, regardless of salary levels. To allow greater independence, and perhaps a more principled approach, claims of unfair dismissal will be handled by the specialist Employment Claims Tribunal, a subordinate court of the state courts.
The government is committed to providing a harmonious work environment for employees and will thus issue non-statutory guidelines, standards and advisories on various aspects of the employment relationship to supplement existing labour legislation, such as:
- the Tripartite Standard on the Employment of Contract Employees for Better Work Conditions for Fixed-Term Workers;
- the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements;
- the Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling;
- the Tripartite Standard on Recruitment Practices;
- the Tripartite Standard on Unpaid Leave for Unexpected Care Needs;
- the Tripartite Standard on Contracting with Self-Employed Persons;
- the Tripartite Standard on Procurement of Services from Media Freelancers; and
- the Tripartite Standard on Age-Friendly Workplace Practices.
In addition, the government will shortly issue the new Tripartite Guidelines on Unfair Dismissal.
The government has announced that it is considering permitting companies to make deductions from the service fees paid to freelancers and independent contractors by making social contribution payments on their behalf.
What are the emerging trends in employment law in your jurisdiction?
Singapore has a large pool of foreign talent and many employers choose to employ foreign workers as this can be cheaper than employing locals. As a result, the government has tightened the employment regime to encourage employers to consider Singapore citizens first and to permit the recruitment of foreign workers only if no locals with equivalent skills can be found. With this aim in mind, the government has issued numerous measures and the issue of work permits to foreign workers has generally become more difficult.
There is also a trend to provide better protection to employees, which has resulted in amendments to the Employment Act which expand its coverage to include almost all members of a workforce.
The employment relationship
Country specific laws
What laws and regulations govern the employment relationship?
Employment law in Singapore is predominantly governed by the Employment Act, which prescribes certain minimum employment conditions. Other legislation specific to particular aspects of employment in Singapore include:
- the Child Development Co-savings Act;
- the Central Provident Fund Act;
- the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act;
- the Employment Claims Tribunal Act;
- the Industrial Relations Act;
- the Trade Unions Act;
- the Retirement and Re-employment Act;
- the Workplace Safety and Health Act; and
- the Work Injury Compensation Act.
In addition, the Tripartite Alliance – comprising the Ministry of Manpower, the Singapore National Employers Federation and the National Trade Union Congress – issues different types of guidance to encourage employers to follow progressive employment practices. These include guidelines, standards and advisories, with varying expectations for compliance. There are at least 18 such guidance documents at present, including the upcoming Tripartite Guidelines on Unfair Dismissal.
Who do these cover, including categories of worker?
Different pieces of legislation have different applicability requirements. For example, the Employment Act covers all employees, regardless of nationality, except:
- domestic workers;
- government and statutory board employees; and
- persons employed in managerial or executive positions who earn more than S$4,500 a month (this salary threshold will be removed when the amendments to the act take effect in April 2019).
Further, Part IV of the act – which sets rest days, working hours, overtime, shift work and annual leave – applies only to:
- ‘workmen’ (ie, employees who engage in manual labour or operate machines or vehicles) who earn a maximum basic salary of S$4,500 a month; and
- non-workmen, non-managerial and non-executive employees who earn a maximum basic salary of S$2,500 a month (this threshold will increase to S$2,600 a month from April 2019).
The applicability of other legislation varies depending on:
- an employee’s nationality;
- their age;
- the citizenship status of their children; and
- their trade union membership.
Are there specific rules regarding employee/contractor classification?
There are no specific rules. However, based on case law, the courts will look at the substantive arrangement between the parties and consider all of the relevant factors to determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors.
Common factors examined are:
- the extent to which a company exercises control over the work process;
- the company’s payments to workers;
- workers’ compliance with the company’s rules and regulations;
- the extent to which workers follow instructions of company employees;
- the ability of workers to work for other companies; and
- whether the services provided are integral to the business.
Must an employment contract be in writing?
Employment contracts need not be in writing; they can also be entered into verbally or by conduct.
That said, if an employee is covered by the Employment Act and the duration of their contract is more than 14 days, employers must provide them with their key employment terms in writing. The list of terms includes:
- the parties’ identities;
- the employee’s job title and their main duties and responsibilities;
- details of the employment period;
- details of the employee’s working hours and rest days;
- details of the employee’s salary and salary-related components;
- details of any overtime and pay;
- details of any medical benefits;
- the termination notice periods; and
- the employee’s leave entitlement.
Are any terms implied into employment contracts?
Case law has established that an implied duty of mutual trust and confidence exists between an employer and an employee, defined as “a portmanteau, general obligation not to engage in conduct likely to undermine the trust and confidence required if the employment relationship is to continue”.
Employees also have a duty of good faith and fidelity towards their employers and to use reasonable care and skill in the performance of their duties.
If certain labour legislation applies to an employee, certain minimum terms are implied into their employment contract.
Are mandatory arbitration/dispute resolution agreements enforceable?
Arbitration and dispute resolution agreements are generally enforceable in Singapore and the courts usually defer to them. However, it remains to be seen whether mandatory arbitration agreements contravene public policy in an employment context.
How can employers make changes to existing employment agreements?
Any change to the fundamental terms and conditions of an employment contract should be made with the consent of both parties and be documented in writing. Some employment contracts may allow the employer to change the terms of the agreement unilaterally, but this is generally limited to administrative (ie, non-fundamental) terms or internal policies and procedures. However, such discretion is subject (unless expressly stated otherwise) to the decision-making process being exercised lawfully, in good faith and rationally in the public law sense (ie, not arbitrarily or capriciously). Where consent is required, the employer will be unable to proceed with the proposed changes without the employee’s consent.
Is a distinction drawn between local and foreign workers?
This depends on the labour legislation in question. For example, the Employment Act makes no distinction between local and foreign workers and provides protection to all employees within its scope.
However, the Retirement and Re-employment Act and the Central Provident Fund Act apply only to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.
Further, the additional parental leave benefits provided for by the Child Development Co-savings Act apply only to employees whose children are or become Singapore citizens within 12 months of their birth or adoption, subject to other qualifying criteria.
What are the requirements relating to advertising positions?
Job listings should comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices. If employers must include a special requirement or ask for information that may be viewed as discriminatory, they should ensure that they have a legitimate work reason for doing so.
If a company contemplates filling a vacancy with a foreign worker who would require an employment pass, the position must first be advertised on the Jobs Bank, which is managed by Workforce Singapore. The listing must:
- comply with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (eg, it cannot be discriminatory in relation to the job requirements); and
- run for at least 14 calendar days before the employment pass application is made.
However, companies are exempted from this requirement if:
- the business has fewer than 10 employees;
- the fixed monthly salary for the vacant position is S$15,000 or more;
- the job is to be filled by an ‘intra-corporate transferee’ (as defined under the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services); or
- the job is for short-term contingency purposes (ie, less than one month in duration).
What can employers do with regard to background checks and inquiries in relation to the following:
(a) Criminal records?
The Singapore Police Force may issue a certificate of clearance (COC) to citizens upon application, which will certify that the subject concerned has no prior criminal convictions in Singapore. Non-Singapore citizens who have resided in Singapore for at least six months with a valid residence or work pass may apply for a COC by way of an appeal, for consideration on a case-by-case basis. They must submit documentary proof that a COC is required by the foreign government authority or institution for overseas purposes such as migration, adoption, overseas employment or further education.
- Employers can require candidates to sign a self-declaration or statutory declaration that they have no criminal record. If an individual has no (or only spent) convictions, they can declare that fact. However, if the question concerns whether the individual has ever been convicted of a criminal offence, they must answer in the affirmative even if the conviction is spent.
- Employers can require candidates with an old criminal record to provide the search results confirming the status of their criminal record.
(b) Medical history?
Subject to discrimination and personal data considerations, there is no prohibition on inquiring into a candidate’s medical history.
Employers can make a medical examination a compulsory employment condition in order to assess whether a prospective employee is fit for the job. Certain foreign workers on certain work passes must undertake a medical examination within two weeks of their arrival in Singapore. Others may be required to do so on the relevant authority’s instructions.
In addition to considering medical confidentiality, medical records constitute personal data and must be obtained and handled pursuant to the Personal Data Protection Act.
(c) Drug screening?
There is no legislation preventing alcohol and drug testing at work in Singapore. Best practice is for employers to include a requirement in employment contracts that employees be prepared to undergo alcohol and drugs testing if:
- their jobs carry a health and safety risk to themselves or others; or
- the employer has reasonable grounds to suspect that an employee is under the influence of alcohol or non-prescription drugs at work.
Most employers tend to use external testing agencies or have test samples sent to the Health Sciences Authority for analysis.
(d) Credit checks?
Employers can obtain credit reports on employees, although in practice this is done only for senior managers, executives or individuals employed in certain regulated roles where they have access to the employer’s assets or deal with financial matters, such as financial investment advisers or insurance agents. Only the Credit Bureau Singapore and the DP Credit Bureau are recognised by the Singapore Monetary Authority as competent to compile credit reports.
(e) Immigration status?
Work passes for foreign employees are generally sponsored by their employers. Therefore, in practice, employers are aware of the immigration status of their employees and their eligibility to work in Singapore. However, it is common for employers to request employees to provide proof of their eligibility to work legally in Singapore and inform their employer of any change in their eligibility status.
(f) Social media?
Subject to discrimination considerations, employers are free to screen their employees’ internet profiles and social media activity, provided that such material is publicly available. Although material from social media and the Internet constitutes personal data, it is exempt under the Personal Data Protection Act if it is already publicly available.
Employers are free to conduct additional background checks, including:
- identity verification;
- curriculum vitae checks; and
- reference checks.
However, such checks must be done within the limitations imposed by the Personal Data Protection Act and taking into account discrimination considerations.
Wages and working time
Is there a national minimum wage and, if so, what is it?
There is no minimum wage in Singapore apart from in the cleaning, security and landscape sectors, in which a progressive wage model sets a minimum wage for workers, subject to progression in their level of training and skills.
Are there restrictions on working hours?
There are restrictions on working hours if employees are covered by Part IV of the Employment Act. The maximum basic working hours are eight hours per day or 44 hours per week (excluding meal breaks). Employees with a five-day working week can work up to nine hours per day, subject to an overall weekly cap of 44 hours. Any working time exceeding that cap amounts to overtime and the employee will be entitled to overtime pay of at least one-and-a-half times the basic hourly rate. Unless specially exempted, employees cannot work more than 12 hours per day or 72 hours of overtime in one month.
Special calculations apply to shift workers. For employees outside the scope of Part IV of the Employment Act, the working hours are based on the terms and conditions of their individual employment contract, subject to workplace safety considerations pursuant to the Workplace Safety and Health Act.
Hours and overtime
What are the requirements for meal and rest breaks?
Employees covered by Part IV of the Employment Act cannot work for more than six consecutive hours without a break. If the nature of the work requires continuous work for up to eight hours, breaks of at least 45 minutes must be provided for meals.
How should overtime be calculated?
For employees covered under Part IV of the Employment Act, overtime pay is calculated at a minimum of one-and-a-half times the hourly basic pay rate. Subsequent to the ongoing changes to the Employment Act, which are expected to take effect in April 2019, the overtime payable to employees is based on their monthly basic salary. The monthly salary cap of S$2,250 or S$11.80 an hour will no longer apply from April 2019.
For employees not covered by Part IV of the Employment Act, overtime pay will be calculated in accordance with the terms and conditions of their employment contract.
What exemptions are there from overtime?
Employees covered under Part IV of the Employment Act have a statutory entitlement to receive overtime pay. The working hours and overtime pay of employees not covered by Part IV are governed only by their individual employment contracts.
Is there a minimum paid holiday entitlement?
Once the changes to the Employment Act take effect in April 2019, all employees covered by the Employment Act who have undertaken at least three months’ continuous service are entitled to a minimum of seven days’ annual leave for their first year of service. Thereafter, the minimum annual leave entitlement increases by one day for every year of service (eg, eight days’ annual leave for two years’ service, capped at a ‘maximum minimum’ of 14 days’ annual leave, irrespective of length of service). This excludes public holidays, of which Singapore has 11 per year.
What are the rules applicable to final pay and deductions from wages?
An employee’s final pay must include all amounts that are contractually due, including:
- their salary up until their last day of employment;
- payment in lieu of notice, if applicable;
- compensation for accrued but unused annual leave, if applicable; and
- any other contractual benefits to which the employee may be entitled.
An employee’s final salary payment must be made on their last day of employment (or, if that’s impossible, within three days) in the case of termination by a company. If the employee resigns with immediate effect, final pay must be made within seven days. If the employee resigns and duly serves their notice period, the company must make payment on their last day of employment.
In the case of wage deductions, the general principle is that they are prohibited unless prescribed by the Employment Act. The act contains a list of authorised deductions with accompanying conditions and requirements. The impending changes to the Employment Act will introduce a catch-all provision that allows employers to make wage deductions for any purpose not already prescribed if the employees have consented in writing.
What payroll and payment records must be maintained?
Employers must keep records of each employee’s:
- first and last days of each salary period;
- basic salary paid in each salary period, calculated by reference to the basic pay rate;
- allowances and additional payments in each salary period;
- first and last days of each overtime payment period, if different from the salary period;
- overtime hours worked during each overtime period;
- overtime pay for each overtime period;
- salary deductions during each salary period;
- net pay for each salary period; and
- date of payment for each salary period.
In addition, employers must issue itemised payslips when making salary payments (or, if that’s impossible, within three days) containing the following information:
- the employer’s full name and trade name (if applicable);
- the employee’s full name;
- the first and last days of each salary period;
- the amount of basic salary paid in each salary period, calculated by reference to the basic rate of pay;
- an itemised list of allowances and additional payments in each salary period;
- the first and last days of each overtime payment period, if different from the salary period;
- the overtime hours worked during each overtime period;
- the overtime pay for each overtime period;
- an itemised list of salary deductions during each salary period;
- the net amount paid to the employee for each salary period; and
- the date of payment for each salary period.
These records must be kept for two years from creation for existing employees and one year following an employee’s departure.
Discrimination, harassment & family leave
What is the position in relation to:
It is an offence under the Retirement and Re-employment Act for an employer to dismiss an employee who is younger than 62 (or the then prescribed minimum retirement age) on the grounds of their age.
Race is not a statutorily protected characteristic in Singapore, although it is indirectly protected under the implied term of trust and confidence. Further, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) provides guidelines on fair employment practices which encourage employers to treat employees based on merit, regardless of race. The Constitution prohibits discrimination against Singapore citizens on the grounds of race, but this is limited only to employment by a public authority and appointments to a public office.
Disability is not a statutorily protected characteristic in Singapore, although it is indirectly protected under the implied term of trust and confidence. TAFEP guidelines encourage employers to treat employees on merit, regardless of disability.
Gender is not a statutorily protected characteristic in Singapore, although it is indirectly protected under the implied term of trust and confidence. TAFEP guidelines also encourage employers to treat employees on merit, regardless of gender.
Female employees have certain protections against dismissal during maternity leave under the Employment Act and the Child Development Co-savings Act.
(e) Sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation is not a statutorily protected characteristic in Singapore.
Religion is not a statutorily protected characteristic in Singapore, although it is indirectly protected under the implied term of trust and confidence. TAFEP guidelines encourage employers to treat employees on merit, regardless of religion. The Constitution prohibits discrimination against Singapore citizens on the grounds of religion, but this is limited only to employment by a public authority and appointments to a public office.
No special protection is provided to employees based on medical conditions, except disabled or pregnant employees or employees on maternity leave.
Singapore citizens and male permanent residents undertaking national service are protected under the Enlistment Act. No employer may dismiss an employee solely or primarily due to a duty or liability which that person may have to perform through national service.
Family and medical leave
What is the position in relation to family and medical leave?
Sick Leave Employees covered under the Employment Act who have at least three months’ service are entitled to paid sick leave. The sick leave entitlement per calendar year is 14 days’ non-hospitalisation leave and 60 days’ hospitalisation leave (inclusive of the 14 days). Employees with six months’ service are entitled to the full sick leave entitlement, while sick leave entitlement is reduced according to a prescribed formula for employees with three to six months’ service.
Maternity Leave Under the Child Development Co-savings Act, mothers whose children are Singapore citizens at birth or become one within 12 months of birth are entitled to 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave. In order to be eligible, mothers must have been employed for at least three months before the child’s birth. This benefit is known as government-funded maternity leave. There is no requirement for female employees to be married in order to be eligible for the benefit. Under the act, employers are entitled to reimbursement from the government for the last eight weeks of maternity pay for a female employee’s first two children and the full 16 weeks for any subsequent child. The reimbursement is capped at S$10,000 (inclusive of central provident fund (CPF) contributions) every four weeks.
For women who do not qualify under the Child Development Co-savings Act, but are covered by the Employment Act, maternity leave is 12 weeks. The first eight weeks are paid by the employer and the last four weeks are unpaid.
For employees not covered under either act, any entitlement to maternity leave is governed by their employment contract.
Adoption Leave Under the Child Development Co-savings Act, adoptive mothers of Singaporean children are entitled to 12 weeks’ adoption leave. Under the act, employers are entitled to reimbursement from the government for the last eight weeks of adoption pay for a female employee’s first two adoptions and the full 12 weeks for any subsequent adoption. The reimbursement is capped at S$10,000 (inclusive of CPF contributions) every four weeks.
Employees must take their adoption leave before the child turns one. Certain eligibility criteria must be met in order to take adoption leave.
Paternity Leave Male employees are entitled to up to two weeks’ paid paternity leave if they have a child through birth or adoption. In order to be eligible:
- the father must be lawfully married or have been lawfully married to the child’s mother between conception and birth (not applicable for fathers who are adopting);
- the child must be a Singapore citizen or become one within one year from their birth; and
- the father must have carried out at least three months’ service with the same employer.
Paternity leave is funded by the government, with a cap of S$2,500 (including CPF contributions) per week.
Parental Leave Employees who are eligible under the Child Development Co-savings Act and have worked for an employer for at least three months are entitled to the following benefits each year:
- six days’ unpaid infant leave if they have a child aged under two;
- six days’ paid childcare leave if they have a child aged under seven; and
- two days’ paid extended childcare leave if they have a child aged between seven and 12.
For employees who satisfy the Child Development Co-savings Act’s requirements, the first three days of childcare leave a year are paid for by the employer and the remaining three days are paid for by the government, subject to a daily cap of S$500 (including CPF contributions).
Employees who are not eligible under the Child Development Co-savings Act but are eligible under the Employment Act are entitled to two days’ paid childcare leave a year.
Shared Parental Leave Working fathers can take up to four weeks of their wife’s 16-week government-funded maternity leave or 12-week government-funded adoption leave, subject to their wife’s consent. The leave is reimbursable by the government, subject to a cap of S$2,500 (including CPF contributions) per week. In order to be eligible, the following conditions must be satisfied:
- the child must be a Singapore citizen or become one within one year from birth;
- the father must be lawfully married to the mother or the parents must have been lawfully married between conception and birth; and
- the mother must qualify for the 16-week government-funded maternity leave or 12-week government-funded adoption leave.
What is the position in relation to harassment?
The Protection from Harassment Act criminalises harassment. Anyone found guilty of harassment can face a fine or imprisonment (or both) and be subject to injunctive orders to cease the harassment. The act places no specific obligations on employers to prevent harassment in the workplace, as it is not employment-specific legislation. However, as it allows a victim of harassment to seek damages against the harasser in the civil courts, it may be possible for the employer to be sued and made vicariously liable for the actions of its employees who are found guilty of harassment.
What is the position in relation to whistleblowing?
Singapore has no specific legislation on whistleblowing protection for employees or other workers. However, protection is available if an employee or worker reports their employer or business partner to the authorities for offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Pursuant to the act, no complaints as to an offence will be admitted in evidence in any civil or criminal proceeding whatsoever, and no witness will be obliged or permitted to disclose the name or address of any informer or divulge any matter that might lead to their identity being discovered. If any books, documents or papers which are in evidence or liable to inspection contain an entry in which any informer is named or described, the court presiding over the proceedings must require that all such passages are redacted or removed so far as is necessary to protect the informant’s identity.
Privacy in the workplace
Privacy and monitoring
What are employees’ rights with regard to privacy and monitoring?
Singapore has no constitutional right of privacy, but the Personal Data Protection Act provides a measure of data privacy for employee communications. The act normally requires that employee consent be obtained before an employer collects, uses, processes or discloses their personal data, although there are some exemptions (eg, when the data is used for evaluative purposes or to manage or terminate an employment relationship).
There is no legislation or case law in Singapore that specifically addresses the monitoring of emails. However, the Personal Data Protection Act nonetheless applies to the monitoring of emails, text messages and phone calls. This is because the content of emails, text messages or phone calls is likely to constitute personal data if an individual can be reasonably identified by the information contained therein. As such, employee consent must be obtained unless the purpose of the collection, monitoring or disclosure of information falls within one of the exemptions set out in the act.
To what extent can employers regulate off-duty conduct?
As a general rule, employers cannot intrude into their employees’ private lives unless such activities have a material adverse impact on the employer’s reputation or business.
Are there rules protecting social media passwords in the employment context and/or on employer monitoring of employee social media accounts?
There are no specific rules on protecting social media passwords or employer monitoring of employee social media accounts.
Trade secrets and restrictive covenants
Who owns IP rights created by employees during the course of their employment?
If an employee creates IP rights during the course of their employment, those rights will generally belong to the employer. However, it is advisable to include express provisions to this effect in an employment contract.
What types of restrictive covenants are recognised and enforceable?
Post-employment restrictive covenants are prima facie a restraint of trade and are therefore unenforceable in Singapore, unless the employer seeks to protect a legitimate business interest and the scope of the restraint (eg, the duration, geographical area and scope of restricted activity) is no wider than is reasonable and necessary to protect those interests and is reasonable as to public policy. In general, non-solicitation of customers is easier to enforce than a restraint against joining a competitor. For this reason, restrictive covenants must be drafted carefully.
Are there any special rules on non-competes for particular classes of employee?
No. However, non-competition restrictions are appropriate only for senior management or employees who have access to highly confidential information or can exert significant influence over customers and employees, such that their departure and the abuse of such information could adversely affect the employer’s legitimate business interests.
Discipline and grievance procedures
Are there specific laws on the procedures employers must follow with regard to discipline and grievance procedures?
No. However, the Tripartite Guidelines On Fair Employment Practices require that companies implement a grievance handling mechanism for discrimination complaints.
Further, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices has published the Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling, which sets out minimum requirements with which companies must comply, including as follows:
- Employers are encouraged to:
- set up a grievance handling procedure for employees to raise grievances; and
- conduct proper investigations and respond to the affected individuals.
- The procedure must be communicated to all employees and documented.
- The procedure should specify the appropriate authority to hear the appeal and a reasonable period in which action should be taken.
- Employees should be given the right to take the unresolved grievance to the next level (eg, request the assistance of the union if they are a union member in a unionised company).
- Discussions should be documented and confidentiality of information observed.
- Supervisors and appointed staff should be trained to manage employee feedback and grievances and work with the union if the company is unionised.
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices has also produced a Grievance Handling Handbook, which offers practical tips on managing grievances within the workplace and helps employers through the entire process. According to the handbook:
- there should be at least two levels of appeal, if the business structure allows; and
- any complaints must be responded to (not to be confused with resolved) within three working days.
Unions and layoffs
Is your country (or a particular area) known to be heavily unionised?
There are more than 50 trade unions in Singapore. However, trade unions’ activities are regulated under legislation and they have only limited legal rights to organise industrial action.
Unlike other jurisdictions, trade unions in Singapore are known to work closely with (and rarely against) employers.
What are the rules on trade union recognition?
All trade unions in Singapore must register with the Registry of Trade Unions to have legal status and enjoy the rights, privileges and immunities given to trade unions. Any registered trade union can apply to an employer to recognise it for all or a specific class (or classes) of employees. There is a statutory process that facilitates this under the Industrial Relations (Recognition of a Trade Union of Employees) Regulations.
What are the rules on collective bargaining?
Recognised trade unions and employers can serve notice, inviting the other party to engage in collective bargaining. This invitation must be in writing and set out the proposals in relation to industrial matters (ie, pertaining to employer or employee relations, the terms of employment, the transfer of employment or the working conditions of any person). However, trade unions cannot demand collective bargaining in the following areas:
- the promotion of an employee;
- the transfer of an employee within the employer’s trade, business or work, provided that this does not entail a change to the employee’s detriment;
- the appointment of any person to a vacancy within the employer’s establishment;
- the termination of an employee’s contract due to redundancy, reorganisation or the criteria for such termination;
- the dismissal and reinstatement of an employee (in certain circumstances); or
- the assignment or allocation of duties or specific tasks to an employee in line with their terms of employment.
A collective agreement is valid for a minimum of two and a maximum of three years. Once the agreement has been signed, it must be filed with the Industrial Arbitration Court for certification within one week. If a collective agreement cannot be concluded, the employer or trade union may seek conciliation assistance from the Ministry of Manpower to help both parties resolve the collective agreement dispute amicably. If conciliation fails, the trade dispute may then be brought to the Industrial Arbitration Courts for resolution.
Are employers required to give notice of termination?
The Employment Act requires that a minimum mutual notice period be given by employers and employees depending on their length of service. The minimum notice period requirements under the act are as follows.
Length of service
Minimum notice period
Less than 26 weeks
Between 26 weeks and two years
Between two and five years
Five or more years
It is common for an employment contract to provide for longer notice periods. An employment contract cannot provide for a notice period which is shorter than the statutory minimum period and notice periods for employers and employees must be the same.
There are no statutory minimum notice periods for employees not covered under the Employment Act. This is determined by the individual employment contract. In the absence of notice periods being specified in an employment contract, the court will imply a notice period of reasonable duration.
What are the rules that govern redundancy procedures?
There is no statutory process for implementing individual redundancies or retrenchment. However, the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment states that the process should be fair and treat affected employees with respect and dignity. Though this is merely an advisory (as opposed to guidelines), it is nevertheless referred to in the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices. The advisory further recommends that employers examine alternatives to retrenchment, including:
- shorter working weeks;
- temporary layoffs;
- flexible working arrangements; and
Employers should give a longer notice period than their contractual obligations to enable employees to adjust to their redundancy and look for other work. No specific timescale is recommended, as each redundancy is likely to be different.
As regards statutory entitlement to retrenchment benefits, Part IV of the Employment Act provides that no employees are entitled to retrenchment benefits on dismissal on the ground of redundancy or by reason of a reorganisation of the employer’s profession, business, trade or work if they have carried out less than two years’ continuous service. Such employees may seek payment, but any amount will be subject to negotiation. Employees not covered under Part IV of the Employment Act are not entitled to any statutory retrenchment benefits, except as provided for by their individual employment contract.
However, based on the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment, the prevailing norm is to pay a retrenchment benefit varying between two weeks’ and one month’s salary per year of service, depending on the company’s financial position and considering the industry norm. In unionised companies, the norm is one month’s salary for each year of service.
Are there particular rules for collective redundancies/mass layoffs?
Employers with at least 10 employees must notify the Ministry of Manpower if five or more employees are to be retrenched within a six-month period. The notification must be submitted within five working days after an employee is notified of their retrenchment. For the first four employees to be made redundant, notification must be submitted within five working days from when the fifth employee has been notified. Thereafter, notification must be submitted within five working days after each employee has been notified.
There are no additional statutory requirements on employers to consult or negotiate with trade unions (whether recognised or not) in respect of retrenchment proposals. Although recognised trade unions have the right to serve notice on an employer to engage in collective bargaining under Section 17 of the Industrial Relations Act, terminations on the grounds of redundancy are expressly excluded. However, the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment recommends consultation with recognised trade unions over proposed redundancies, which is also commonly provided for in collective bargaining agreements.
What protections do employees have on dismissal?
If an employee covered by the Employment Act considers that they have been dismissed without just cause or excuse by their employer, the employee can complain to the Ministry of Manpower within one month of the dismissal even if notice has been given by the employer (ie, unfair dismissal compared with wrongful dismissal). An employee in a managerial or executive position would have to serve at least 12 months in any position with the employer before this remedy is available to them if they are dismissed with notice or provided with payment in lieu of notice.
If the Ministry of Manpower decides that the dismissal is without just cause or reason, it can order the employer to:
- reinstate the employee and pay a sum equivalent to their lost wages from the date of dismissal until reinstatement; or
- pay compensation as determined by the Ministry of Manpower. There is no cap on the amount of compensation awardable and it is expressly stated that the ministry need not have regard to any principles of law when determining compensation.
If the Ministry of Manpower makes such an order, the employee cannot bring claims against the employer through the court system.
Alternatively, and as is also the case for employees who are not covered under the Employment Act, civil claims can be brought against employers. However, in respect of dismissal, the law recognises only wrongful and not unfair dismissal. The potential damages would be limited to contractual entitlements, which would usually be their notice entitlement and any other rights that they may have in their individual employment contracts.
Subsequent to the amendments to the Employment Act taking effect in April 2019, the Employment Claims Tribunal will handle all claims of unfair dismissal against companies, with some minor changes to existing conditions and framework.
Jurisdiction and procedure
Which tribunals or courts have jurisdiction to hear complaints?
The state courts and the Supreme Court have jurisdiction to hear all employment-related complaints, along with the Employment Claims Tribunal.
Further, employees covered under the Employment Act are entitled to appeal against a dismissal to the Ministry of Manpower (following the changes to the Employment Act expected to take effect in the second quarter of 2019, appeals must be filed with the Employment Claims Tribunal).
Finally, the Employment Claims Tribunal has jurisdiction to hear:
- statutory salary-related claims made by employees covered by the Employment Act, the Retirement and Re-employment Act and the Child Development Co-Savings Act;
- contractual salary-related claims made by all employees, except domestic workers, public servants (ie, all government employees) and seafarers; and
- claims for salary in lieu of notice of termination made by all employers.
Subject to a claim limit of S$20,000, which is increased to S$30,000 if the employee has undergone Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) mediation or mediation assisted by a union recognised under the Industrial Relations Act.
What is the procedure and typical timescale?
Under the Employment Claims Act, parties must undergo mediation before the Employment Claims Tribunal can hear a complaint. Mediation is facilitated by the TADM.
Employees have one year from the date of a dispute (six months if their employment has been terminated) to file a mediation request with the TADM. If the claim cannot be settled through mediation at the TADM, the mediator will issue the employee a claim referral certificate, after which they must file a claim with the tribunal within four weeks of the certificate date.
Thereafter, the Employment Claims Tribunal will hear the unresolved dispute.
As regards any claim brought through the civil court system, the usual civil procedure rules apply.
What is the route for appeals?
Parties may appeal to the High Court against an Employment Claims Tribunal order only on:
- a ground involving a question of law; or
- the ground that the claim was outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
Further, parties can appeal to the High Court only if they have obtained leave (permission) to appeal from a district court.
If the dispute is first heard through the usual civil court system, the usual appeal rules apply.