How MOM & TAFEP have been managing disputes on salary & retrenchment benefits during Covid-19 season, explained

Work in Progress: Misconceptions clarified.

| Melanie Lim | Sponsored | June 16, 2021, 06:45 PM

You may have heard about the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), which was launched at Budget 2020 to help employers offset the wages of local employees and protect their jobs during this period of economic uncertainty.

You may also know of someone who had to be let go by their employer as a result of persistent business difficulties.

But how do the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) tackle the increased concerns related to JSS and retrenchments?

We spoke to senior investigation officer at MOM Teo Zi Jian and industry lead at TAFEP James Pang to find out more.

Jobs Support Scheme

Throughout his seven-year career in MOM, senior investigation officer Teo Zi Jian has built up a wealth of experience as a mediator, where he enforced the Employment Act and managed employment disputes.

At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was re-deployed to a migrant worker dormitory to assist migrant workers with their employment issues.

And in May 2020, Teo joined a newly-set up Dispute Resolution Team to deal with queries and complaints arising from the JSS.

As these queries and complaints are typically from employees whose employers had administered cost-saving measures during or after the Circuit Breaker period, Teo’s role requires him to understand, mediate and resolve the issues raised by both employers and employees in an amicable manner.

Toughest part of the job: standing ready to guide distressed employees through “phone calls which can last for hours”, any time of the day

During a typical work day, Teo contacts employees to get a better understanding of their issues.

As some of them may not have a good understanding of the JSS, Teo would advise these employees and correct any misconceptions they may have of their employers’ wrongdoings.

According to Teo, having to be on “phone calls which can last for hours” is the toughest part of his job, as the callers tend to be facing financial distress and are understandably emotionally charged.

“Our role is to keep them calm and hear them out, and at the same time, explain the intention of the JSS and work out suitable cost-saving measures that can benefit both employers and employees,” says Teo.

The need to standby sometimes extends beyond regular working hours, as some employees may only be available at night to speak to Teo on their cases.

As such, Teo tries to maintain a healthy work-life balance by compartmentalising work and personal matters whenever he can.

For example, he would come up with a ‘to do list’ every morning so that he can keep track of and stay focused on the important work matters during the day.

He also tries to finish these tasks and avoids taking too many breaks so that he can fully enjoy his free time at night.

Despite the challenges faced, Teo still derives immense satisfaction in being able to help affected employers and employees achieve win-win outcomes and cope through this difficult time together.

Ironing out misconceptions about the JSS

When asked about why there are still misunderstandings about the JSS amongst employees and employers, Teo has a clear explanation for it:

“Although MOM has issued various advisories on the usage of JSS, some employers may have already implemented urgent cost-saving measures to keep their businesses afloat prior to the release of our advisories. Most of the time, they did not have any time to review and check the implemented measures for compliance, which may lead to subsequent JSS-related misunderstandings between employees and employers.”

Additionally, some employees may think that the JSS is their entitled payment from the government and that the entire sum received by the company should be given to them as their salary even if they were unable to perform work during Circuit Breaker.

Some employers, on the other hand, perceive the JSS to be meant only for the company’s survivability, while employees should look elsewhere for other available government grants.

In many cases, employers had misinterpreted MOM’s advisory when they adopted cost saving measures for the company, neglecting baseline salary support for their employees in the process.

After MOM’s intervention however, these companies would comply with providing baseline salary support for their employees.

MOM will revoke work pass privileges of companies who abuse the JSS

In more extreme cases, there have been companies who actually made mandatory CPF contributions that are not reflective of the actual wages paid, thereby receiving more JSS payouts than what they are entitled to.

In such instances, MOM would take action against these companies by revoking their work pass privileges and referring the incident to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore to suspend future JSS payouts.

Businesses or individuals who wish to report any malpractices or potential abuses of the JSS may do so via email to [email protected] or online at go.gov.sg/jssreport.

Helping workers obtain retrenchment benefits

MOM had also formed a joint team with TAFEP to help retrenched workers request for retrenchment benefits when Covid-19 first happened.

Industry lead James Pang, who has been working in TAFEP for the past four years, was roped into the team to supervise 10 officers from TAFEP.

Comforting and advising retrenched employees

Like Teo, Pang’s role involves addressing queries from retrenched employees, understanding their concerns, and acting as a mediator between them and their company.

According to Pang, retrenched employees usually “share their shock, anger, worries and fear of being unable to support their family or financial commitments” during these one to two-hour phone calls:

“It is very painful to be retrenched. Imagine working in a company for some 10 to 20 years where you spend one third of your waking hours at. You give your best to the company, and out of the blue, your role has been made redundant. It will be a real shock to you. Sometimes, the reality does not sink in until after a few days, when you realise that you have to rely on your savings to pay for bills, children’s school fees, housing loans, etc. That’s when you feel really lost, helpless and anxious.”

To motivate retrenched employees, Pang would also find opportunities in the conversations to guide them on moving forward in their lives:

“Most importantly, I check in with them to see whether they are taking active steps to apply for job opportunities. I will advise them to look at this as an opportunity to think about what they want to do and to stay relevant by thinking about what skills they should pick up, upgrading themselves or trying out a different industry during this period.”

Pang also explains that it usually takes several rounds of conversations before his colleagues can persuade the company’s top management to provide retrenchment benefits for an affected employee.

When asked what the best part of his job is, Pang says:

“Being able to persuade the company to provide even a little bit of retrenchment benefits makes me happy, because it can go a long way in helping the retrenched worker and his or her family tide through this difficult period.”

Not mandatory for employers to pay out retrenchment benefits

According to Pang, one thing that many people do not know is that it is actually not mandatory for companies to pay out retrenchment benefits unless it is mentioned in the employment contract.

As explained on MOM’s website, “The amount of retrenchment benefit depends on what is provided for in the employment contract, memoranda of understanding or collective agreement (for unionised companies). If there is no contractual provision, it is to be negotiated between employees (or their union) and the employers.”

Another factor that determines whether a company is able to pay out retrenchment benefits is also whether they have sufficient funds to do so, according to the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Retrenchment Retrenchment (TAMEM).

As far as possible, employers should pay a reasonable sum to enable the affected employees to move on to new employment opportunities.

Having said this, employers who are in sound financial positions but choose not to provide any retrenchment benefits may be denied future government support or have their work pass privileges suspended.

If you believe that you have been wrongly denied your right to these retrenchment benefits despite it being provided for in your employment contract, you can seek the assistance of MOM or TAFEP by writing in to [email protected]

You may also visit this link to find out more information about retrenchment benefits.

Work in Progress is a sponsored series by MOM that helped this writer understand more about the JSS and retrenchment benefits.

Top image via Mothership