(Delivered in Parliament on 16 August 2016)
The move to replace the current Labour Court with the Employment Claims Tribunal are based on two main considerations, (i) inclusivity and (ii) enhancing efficiency in reaching resolutions. The ECT will basically cover all employees who have an employment contract with their employers, regardless of their salary level with the exception of the following three groups of employees, (i) public servants, (ii) domestic workers and (iii) seafarers. The implementation of the ECT will also improve efficiency, shortening the time required to resolve a salary-related claim.
I welcome this move in making our labour laws more inclusive and efficient. However, I would like to raise four suggestions to further enhance this bill so that it can be more encompassing and inclusive.
In the proposed Bill, domestic workers will be excluded from filing claims when the ECT isr set up. However, it opens a possibility that domestic workers may be included “at a later date when operations have stabilised.” In the meantime, affected domestic workers will have to “approach their employment agencies and/or MOM to resolve disputes” as they are not covered by the Employment Act and thus do not have access to the Labour Court.
Domestic workers are among the most vulnerable workers in Singapore – in part due to the authority and power their employers have over them, and they could possibly be in debt upon arriving in Singapore. If they are not covered from the start, requiring them to approach MOM would perpetuate all the downsides of the current claims dispute settlement mechanism that the ECT is trying to resolve. As such, I propose that the Ministry will indicate the public timeline for domestic workers to be included in the overall operations of the ECT.
In the consultation paper, it is stated under Paragraph 8 that the ECT is meant to be an “expeditious mechanism to deal with salary-related claims” and hence will not include other workplace grievances such as unfair dismissal or discrimination. Thus, I would like to propose that the ECT should preferably deal with claims related to discrimination based on age, disability, race, gender and unfair dismissal. This will bring it in line with other jurisdictions such as the UK. Including claims related to other workplace grievances will make the ECT more comprehensive and useful for employees. Such workplace grievances are still commonplace in Singapore. In 2013 for instance, the then-Acting Minister for Manpower, Mr Tan Chuan Jin, said that from between the period 2007 and 2013, MOM received an average of 70 cases from female employees annually, 70% of whom are pregnant mothers who felt they had been unfairly dismissed.
On the accessibility to the ECT, I would like to raise two further points. The issue here is affordability. To be inclusive in this instance is to facilitate easy access to the ECT, in particular for those who are less fortunate in our midst. Access to any legal recourse should be made accessible to all regardless of their financial circumstances. This is a point that members in this House would concur with.
Presently, claimants have to pay $5/ page for the notes of evidence and grounds of decision made by the Labour Court Commissioner. Such costs can be prohibitive, especially for low wage workers, some of whom may not even have received their salaries for a period of time. The ECT sets out to “create a more accessible system” for potential employees who wish to seek redress; and high costs may lower accessibility.
Hence, as my third proposal, I would like to propose that the grounds of decision by the ECT be made free to claimants, so that they can better understand the factors considered by the ECT and thus be more aware of their rights. This can also help them decide on further actions they may wish to undertake. Notes of evidence should also be made more affordable, with charges waived for low income claimants.
I understand that under Clause 34 of the ECT, fees for making claims through the ECT are not specified, and the Minister has the flexibility to make regulations to the fees charged. I would like to seek clarity on what these fees are, and how they will be calculated. Considering that our claimants could be facing financial difficulties and are seeking recourse through the ECT, I like to propose that the fees are pegged at no higher than $160 for salary-related claims, a practice common in the UK, and that it should be waived entirely for those in financial distress.
In conclusion, on the basis of these four proposals I have shared earlier in enhancing the working of this bill, I support the setting up of the Employment Claim Tribunal.