In the ongoing Night Owl Cinematics (NOC) saga, one of the many pieces of dirty laundry that was aired was the allegation that the NOC workplace was a toxic environment.
Things have played out rather dramatically in the past few weeks, with multiple plot twists and stunning revelations.
Amid all the confusion, one of the concrete takeaways you might have had is this: A public exposé, however well-intentioned, has limited use in actually addressing toxicity at the workplace.
It may have been the case that those involved in NOC's allegedly-toxic workplace had exhausted all their other options to flag their bosses' misconduct or impropriety.
But what options did they have, and what can employees in Singapore do, if they feel that they are being mistreated, if they feel their bosses have gone too far?
Here's what employees in Singapore need to know:
1) Recognise when you are being mistreated
Mistreatment at the workplace can take many forms, including criminal behaviour. Here are some clear examples:
Inflicting physical hurt on employees or subordinates would constitute criminal behaviour.
Sexual assault, outrage of modesty (or, molest), insult to modesty, sexual exposure (covering flashing and cyber-flashing), and voyeurism, are also all criminal acts.
Various acts of harassment are also criminal offences, under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA).
The first example of such harassment in POHA is in fact a workplace-related example:
" X and Y are co‑workers. At the workplace, X loudly and graphically describes to the other co‑workers X’s desire for a sexual relationship with Y in an insulting manner. X knows that Y is within earshot and intends to cause Y distress. Y is distressed. X is guilty of an offence under this section."
The definition of harassment under POHA is broad, and includes "any threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" as well as "any threatening, abusive or insulting communication".
So, yes — verbal abuse, including vulgar language or harsh scoldings, could come under POHA.
If you have been subjected to any of the above, whether by your boss or your colleague (or anyone, for that matter), it can be reported to the police, or — for harassment cases — to the dedicated POHA court which has the power to grant a Protection Order.
Mistreatment under Employment law
The Employment Act provides certain minimum standards that employers must observe with regard to salary issues, overtime, working hours, and rest days.
Failure to abide by these standards is an offence under the Employment Act.
- Non-payment (and late payment) of salary: Non-payment of salary is an offence under the Employment Act. Late payment is also an offence.
- You must be paid your regular salary within seven days of the last day of each salary period (e.g. a month, if you have been promised monthly payment).
- You must be paid for overtime within 14 days of the last day of each salary period.
- An employee who is dismissed must be paid on the day of dismissal where possible, and if not, within three working days.
- Deduction of salary without consent for accommodation or other amenities: Employers are allowed to deduct workers' salary in certain situations (e.g. where employee is absent from work, or is negligent and causes damage or loss of goods and money entrusted to them). However, certain deductions cannot be done without consent, such as deductions for employer-supplied accommodation, or other amenities and services. Even if employees had previously consented to these deductions, they can withdraw their consent.
- Deduction of more than allowed percentage of salary: Even if employers are entitled to make various deductions for accommodation, or to account for damage due to employee negligence, they may not deduct more the prescribed limit in each salary period. For example, deductions for provided accommodation, amenity and service are limited to 25 per cent of an employee's salary. However, the limit does not apply if it is the employee's last salary.
Certain minimum standards for employees' working hours, rest days, and other conditions of service are mandated under Part IV of the Employment Act.
This part of the Employment Act is applicable to workmen whose basic monthly salaries do not exceed S$4,500 and non-workmen whose basic monthly salaries do not exceed s$2,600, while managers and executives are not covered by Part IV.
Here are some examples of how employers might be going against the provisions in Part IV:
- Overtime without proper compensation: Generally, if employees are required to work more than 44 hours in a week, they are considered to be doing overtime. There is a legally-stipulated rate of compensation for overtime work, i.e. 1.5 times your basic hourly rate of pay. Employers who do not pay for overtime work at these rates, or who pay for overtime at lower rates than stipulated, are breaking the law. Employers also cannot grant time off instead of paying for overtime.
- Excessive overtime: There are legally-stipulated limits to working hours, even with overtime pay. Workers should not work more than 12 hours each day, and should not clock in more than 72 hours of overtime each month.
- Not granting minimum rest days: The minimum number of rest days you should have each year are one rest day each week without pay, as well as 11 paid public holidays. If you are required to work on your rest day or on a public holiday, you must be paid additional salary at the required rates.
Part IV of the Employment Act also stipulates minimum numbers of paid annual leave days, paid sick leave days, and paid hospitalisation leave, and employees should familiarise themselves with these legal entitlements.
However, as with many other laws, the Employment Act has exceptions too.
No limits on work hours for "essential services" workers
The Employment Act states that employees can be legally asked to work beyond the stipulated number of hours, or on their rest day, if certain criteria is met.
One such criteria is for work "in any industrial undertaking essential to the economy of Singapore or any of the essential services as defined under Part III of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act" (emphasis ours).
What is the significance of Part III of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (or, the CL(TP)A)?
Part III of the CL(TP)A makes it illegal for "essential services" workers to go on strike without giving their employer advance notice., and defines “essential service” as any service, business, trade, undertaking, manufacture or calling included in Part I of the First Schedule.
It was because of these legal provisions that the 2012 SMRT strike involving 171 disgruntled bus drivers was considered illegal.
This means that workers in sectors like civil defence, electricity and gas services, postal and telecommunication services are among those considered to be providing "essential services".
These workers are not only prevented from going on strike without prior notice, according to the CL(TP)A, but can also be required to work unlimited hours, even on their rest days, according to the Employment Act, which imports the CL(TP)A's definition of "essential services".
This precise issue is currently before the courts, however — a group of drivers are suing SBS Transit, their former employer, claiming that they were overworked and underpaid.
In June this year, a High Court judge acknowledged the importance of this case, saying that it would have wider relevance for workers in terms of how overtime and work hours should be properly set out in employment contracts.
The drivers are currently seeking crowdfunding to pay for their legal fees.
2) Blowing the whistle on abusive behaviour or workplace mistreatment
As stated above, criminal acts or behaviour can be reported to the police, but there are other ways to seek recourse as well.
Company internal policy
Some companies have an internal policy that allows whistleblowers to surface wrongdoing and other bad behaviour. However, those wishing to do so may sometimes face issues.
For example, the offending superior or colleague may be on the committee that looks into complaints.
Also, whistleblowers may not be totally assured of their anonymity, as there may also be situations where making a complaint may reveal one's identity (e.g. in a case where the wrongdoing took place with only a few people present).
Thus, if your company's internal reporting system is not a viable option, you may have to seek a higher authority — such as going to your union (if you have one), or to the authorities.
The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and unions in various sectors may take action to prevent workplace mistreatment from getting out of hand.
A high-profile intervention in the aerospace and aviation sector took place just last year, with NTUC and unions stepping in to halt a retrenchment exercise in Jul. 2020.
Another example of action that unions could take would be collective bargaining, a process where an employer and a union negotiate the terms and conditions of employment. Once an agreement is reached, it is valid for between two to three years.
However, as the name "union" might suggest, these bodies usually get involved if and when the interests of a significantly large group of workers is at stake.
That being said, the case of one individual being mistreated may not be an isolated case, and unions may eventually act, even on something that starts from a single complaint.
Reporting to TAFEP, TADM, or MOM
The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) provides assistance and advice for those facing workplace harassment, whose circumstances may not meet the criteria required for a criminal case or a complaint to the State Courts, or who may simply be unsure on their options.
TAFEP's Contact Us page allows for the reporting of discrimination at the workplace (due to age, gender, race, religion, language, marital status and family responsibility, disability, and so on)
Those who have experienced various forms of workplace harassment can also report their case to TAFEP for advice.
Besides advising employees of their options, TAFEP may also investigate employers accused of wrongdoing.
Although it has limited authority to mete out penalties to wrongdoers, TAFEP may refer them to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for necessary action.
Meanwhile, the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) also provides advice, along with mediation services for disputes between employees and employers.
TADM mediation mainly covers disputes relating to salary claims, and wrongful dismissal.
Successful mediation ends with a signed Settlement Agreement, which will be registered at a District Court so that it has binding legal force.
Should mediation fail, MOM's Employment Claims Tribunals will be the next step.
For other infringements of employment law, such as violations of the Employment Act, or breaches relating to workplace safety and health, complaints can be made directly to MOM, and can be done anonymously.
MOM says that the identity of those who report infringements "will be kept strictly confidential".
3) Getting out of the company ASAP
In extreme case, where you feel that you are being subjected to an unacceptable level of mistreatment, there is always the option of leaving the company ASAP.
This could be done by resigning, and serving out your contractually-agreed notice period.
If you are really in a hurry, you can also choose to buy your way out. And no, this doesn't mean paying anyone a bribe.
Rather, buying your way out of your company just involves you paying the equivalent of the salary you would have earned.
Why the requirement to pay your employer if you don't serve out your notice period?
In a typical situation, you would still be paid while serving notice, and so it may seem strange to have to pay your employer to avoid serving notice.
However, the requirement for payment to your employer could be seen as your fair compensation to the company for creating a manpower shortfall without giving them the agreed amount of advance warning.
Can an employer reject an employee’s resignation?
You may have seen movies or TV shows where bosses dramatically reject their employees' resignation letters, in hopes that they will change their minds.
However, to do so in Singapore would be against the law — and if it happens, it would only be one more thing to report to the authorities.
It is an offence under the Employment Act to prevent an employee from resigning, either with notice, or with compensation in lieu of notice.
Of course, this option should only be pursued if there is no better option, and/or if you manage to find better employment prospects at a different company.
Top photo via unsplash / Laura Davidson
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