Editor's note on Jan. 30: We've received a response from the Ministry of Manpower on Jan. 30 and have updated the article accordingly.
Back in June 2020, the government rolled out the SGUnited Jobs & Skills Package in response to the "epic challenge" posed by job losses amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Displaced workers would be able to apply for over 40,000 new jobs and 30,000 skills-training vacancies, while fresh graduates could look into applying for 25,000 traineeships.
More than a thousand employers offered traineeships under the scheme, in response to government encouragement, which included generously sponsoring 80 per cent of training allowances.
Amid hiring freezes and a glum economic outlook, the traineeships offered job-seekers industry experience in their field of choice, as well as competitive training allowances — the next-best thing to a full-time job, and a significant step up from what a typical internship would offer in terms of length of experience or remuneration.
But it was still the next-best thing.
"You cannot resign"
Which is why two months after starting his traineeship, Michael (not his real name) tendered his resignation to his supervisor after finding full-time employment, only to be given a rude shock.
The company told him, in no uncertain terms:
"You cannot resign."
Michael's training agreement contains strict non-disclosure requirements, which is why he requested that Mothership keep him anonymous, for fear of potential legal repercussions from the company. In hindsight, this in itself was a "red flag" which, he admits, he did not pay close attention to initially.
The traineeship contract that he signed with the company was for a year. Michael says that he was also asked to compensate the company for the remaining months in the contract — a point that was anyway denied by the company in later email correspondence.
In spite of that threat, Michael proceeded to send an official resignation letter via email, and — to be doubly sure — mailed a copy to the company's HQ.
The email reply he received reiterated the company's rejection of his resignation, and piled on other discouragements.
"I don't know whether [they were trying] to threaten me or make me feel scared," he says, showing Mothership the email reply he received.
It was clear enough to Michael that the company was keen to minimise turnover, especially since his role was one that involved regular client interaction.
He was even threatened with the prospect of a "written complaint" that the company had allegedly received from a prospective client about how he handled their inquiries, though he never received a copy of the complaint or more information about what it supposedly said, despite requesting for it.
Backed up by the advice of friends who are lawyers, Michael is sure that these are empty threats. "I know it's bullsh*t," says Michael. "I'm not that naive."
As long as he served out his contractually-agreed one-month notice period, he knew that he would be covered.
Which is why his reaction to being told he could not resign was not fear, but disappointment — in the company, and in the way they tried to discourage him from resigning.
The contents of the email, Michael says, were aimed at "guilt tripping me lah."
The email said that if he was looking for a job, he should not have applied for a traineeship and deprived another applicant of the place, and suggested that his early departure would disadvantage him in his future interactions with "all" government agencies.
Michael felt that this was a misrepresentation of the traineeship and various government agencies, and so he copied the Singapore Business Federation — the government's "appointed programme manager" for the SG United Traineeships — in his email reply, hoping that they would pick up on the company's unbecoming conduct, and intervene somehow.
He also attached a copy of the official traineeship FAQs, citing the fact that it said rather clearly that "trainees can leave the traineeships at any point in time, if there are good reasons to do so (e.g. offered a full-time role elsewhere)."
It was not the first time Michael had felt disappointment at his employer's behaviour, and would not be the last.
In fact, that email marked the start of a frustrating two-month long process of trying to serve out his notice period and to get the company to pay his final training allowance.
Asked to serve clients on day one
Michael's issues with his traineeship employer began on his first day at work.
To begin with, Michael did not even know that it would be his first day.
He had been awaiting further confirmation after signing the employer's traineeship agreement, only to be surprised by a call from them in September 2020, informing him that his traineeship was confirmed, and asking him to report to the office on that very day.
Eager to start off on the right foot, Michael agreed, and rushed down to meet his supervisor for the first time.
When he arrived, his supervisor thrust a bundle of documents at him, gave him a cursory briefing, and then instructed him to start serving clients who had appointments on that very day.
That brief interaction would be the closest thing to any "training" that Michael would receive at his traineeship.
He did not go in expecting to be spoon-fed.
"I can just close one eye," he says, regarding the overall lack of structured training in the traineeship programme.
"In fact I can close two eyes," he adds, reiterating that he had entirely expected to be working independently and meeting clients at some point.
But even with this attitude, Michael was taken aback by how he was left to his own devices with actual clients, from the first day of his traineeship
It also turned out to be one of the rare times when he actually saw his supervisor at all.
Michael was soon required to be — in his words — a "one man show", with basically unlimited latitude as to how to meet with and serve the company's clients.
"There was not even a point in time where she was there [in client meetings] guiding me, or saying 'don't [do] like this' or whatever," Michael says.
And while his traineeship agreement came with a copy of a "development plan" in its annexes, laying out the training and exposure that he would supposedly acquire, Michael says: "I didn't learn anything stated in the development plan."
One month's notice
Bewildered as Michael was by the employer's behaviour in trying to bully him into staying with them, he simply decided not to engage with them any longer, and stopped replying any emails from the management relating to his resignation.
Besides interacting with his clients, he reduced his vocabulary to "yes", "no", and "noted" when speaking to his supervisor or other staff at his workplace. "The point for talk is over," Michael said.
Aside from the fact that the company never acknowledged his resignation, he got through his final month without too much difficulty, since after all, his supervisor hardly showed up at work.
In that final month, Michael continued to perform the tasks required of him, but admits that "[his] mindset did change a bit," and started to be more selective about which tasks he would give 100 per cent effort.
Nonetheless, he made sure to maintain "bare minimum" standards of work.
"I don't want them to have anything to use against me," explains Michael.
Why might a company choose to hire a trainee for a full-time job?
Putting aside the rushed start he had, where "everything was on the fly", Michael does not think that he was underpaid — in his view, his tasks and hours did match up to the amount he received as an allowance.
So what might have stopped the company from advertising the same job, with the same pay, as a full-time position instead?
Some key differences between a traineeship and a full-time position is the 80 per cent subsidy on the training allowance payable to a trainee by the company, and the fact that employers are not required to make CPF contributions.
Benefits such as leave are non-obligatory, and up to the company to extend, "on a discretionary goodwill basis".
In other words, it is a lot cheaper for a company to take in a trainee as compared to a full-time worker.
How are traineeships regulated?
During his last month at the company, Michael sought clearer directions from government agencies involved.
Trainees are not covered under the employment act as they aren't employees
Michael sought advice on his situation from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) shortly after submitting his resignation, in hopes that they would be able to back him up and make it easier for him to leave the traineeship.
However, traineeship contracts, Michael would discover, are not covered under the Employment Act, meaning that he was not able to rely on MOM's advice for contract termination, which laid out clear parameters for an employee in his situation.
While employers are "obliged to accord statutory benefits prescribed under the Act to an intern", MOM said in 2013, trainees do not have the same protection, and are not considered employees.
Therefore, MOM referred Michael to the Singapore Business Federation.
SBF promises to take cases of potential abuse "seriously"
Michael would read in The Straits Times — some time after the last day of his traineeship — that SBF promised to take cases of potential abuse of the traineeships "seriously", in a forum letter published on Jan. 14. SBF said:
"Allegations with substantive evidence are thoroughly investigated, and, in serious cases of fraud or abuse, organisations may have their approval to participate rescinded, and asked to return any grants disbursed."
This did not give Michael much assurance. Rather, it came off as jarring, since it did not seem to line up with his experience at all.
He explains that a few weeks after the contentious email exchange with his company, he received a call from someone at SBF seeking his side of the story and explaining that SBF would also need to get the company's account of the facts, before following up.
By his last day, he had not heard back, and wrote SBF an email (seen by Mothership) which summarised the whole debacle — including his suspicion that the company was misusing the funds set aside for the traineeship to fill what was essentially a full-time position, and a detailed account of how the company had tried to stop him from leaving.
According to Michael, the replies he got were "all about allowance".
Emails from SBF requested administrative information (such as the dates when he reported to work) for the agency to follow up on the matter of his unpaid allowance, but appeared to show no interest in looking into Michael's complaints about the company.
Michael subsequently called SBF to follow up, only to be told that he should take his issues to the "higher management" of his company.
Shortly after that, he received another email from SBF, informing him that "there are no outstanding disputes".
In the meantime, Michael continued to see advertisements for similar traineeships under the company on the mycareersfuture website.
Allowance finally paid, but is the case closed?
Michael was eventually paid his outstanding allowance, more than a month after his last day at the company in December.
But the monetary compensation did not go far in assuaging his concerns about how the traineeship programme is being handled, given how the company "got off the hook just like that".
"This is taxpayers' money," he says, expressing disappointment at the fact that the issues he raised were not looked into more proactively.
While Michael had the benefit of advice from lawyer friends, he wonders how someone else — perhaps less connected, or less wary — would react if their traineeship employer resorts to "guilt-tripping" them into staying on for the rest of the traineeship.
In a joint statement on Jan. 30, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Workforce Singapore, and Singapore Business Federation updated that the company has been rescinded from offering new traineeships and attachments.
MOM found that the company was unwilling to accept Michael's resignation as they were concerned about filling the vacancy.
The company has been barred from other WSG programmes too.
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