In October, allegations of workplace abuse by Night Owl Cinematics co-founder Sylvia Chan surfaced on social media. Amongst other things, she was accused of verbally abusing employees, delaying their payments and overworking them – all of which contributed to a toxic work culture.
Information came to light in a series of exposes – first by Instagram account sgcickenrice, and then followed by a blog titled “End the Silence”. Sylvia Chan also aired her side of the story on an interview with veteran blogger Xiaxue with an accompanying blog titled “Interview Receipts”. Though most of these sites are no longer accessible, the whistleblowing seems to have worked, as SPF and TAFEP are now investigating NOC.
But whistleblowing is not the only avenue for employees to air grievances against their employers. There are other avenues and structures in place. So what are they and are they viable options in the first place?
Tripartite Alliance Limited
A good starting point would be the Tripartite Alliance Limited (TAL). The TAL is a company jointly set up by the tripartite partners of MOM, NTUC and the Singapore National Employers’ Federation. The company is a manifestation of Singapore’s belief in an ideology called Tripartism. It is a system where employers’ organisations, trade unions, and the government act as “partners” in creating economic policy.
As TAL’s aim is to advance both employers’ and employees’ interests, settling workplace disputes is part of their work scope.There are three agencies under the TAL, each of which serve different functions. They are: the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) and the Workplace Safety and Health Council (WSHC).
Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices
The TAFEP’s role is to promote the adoption of fair employment practices, which span many issues ranging from caregiving leave to workplace harassment. However, their main focus is pre and in-employment discrimination. Apart from providing resources and guidelines on fair employment practices, they also offer an avenue for the online reporting of discrimination or harassment. In response to your report, TAFEP can:
- Direct you to mediation, the Singapore Police Force, the State Courts or any other relevant authority
- Refer your report to the Ministry of Manpower, which in turn can require the company to rectify lapses in their HR processes or suspend the company’s work pass privileges.
Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management
The TADM, on the other hand, functions primarily as a mediator. They offer mediation for salary-related and wrongful dismissal-related disputes. Like with TAFEP, you can report disputes online on TADM’s website, which they will then investigate and mediate. Cases that cannot be resolved via mediation are referred to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT), a specialised Court for handling these cases.
It is important to note that both the TADM and the ECT only deal with workplace disputes relating to salary and wrongful dismissal. Disputes like harassment and discrimination are out of their purview.
Workplace Safety and Health Council
The WSHC’s role is to raise workplace safety and health standards in Singapore. Related to this is the Work Injury Compensation Act, which provides an efficient, low-cost route for claiming compensation for work injuries. As with the other two entities, WSH will help answer your questions regarding issues that fall under their purview. Reporting of workplace safety hazards, however, are done directly to the Ministry of Manpower.
Mix and Match
The three workplace abuses allegedly suffered by employees in NOC – verbal abuse, late payment and overwork – are covered under the TAL’s different agencies. Late payment is a salary-related dispute, which would be under TADM. Verbal abuse could come under workplace harassment, which would be under TAFEP.
It is less clear how, or where, a dispute regarding overwork should be reported. If it led to health or safety issues, an employee could file a claim under WICA or report it to the WSHC. And if an employee wanted to be compensated for OT work, it becomes a salary dispute which the TADM would handle.
But working OT without pay is also considered an Employment Act (EA) violation. The EA sets out legal requirements for leave, holidays, salary and working hours of employees. Violations of these requirements do not fall under the TAL’s three agencies. Rather, they can be reported directly to MOM through their website.
As such, depending on the nature and complexity of disputes, an employee may have to file claims with five separate entities – TAFEP, TADM, WSHC, SPF and MOM themselves to obtain recourse. The process of learning about the system, filing claims and providing evidence is time- and energy-consuming. For employees dealing with small disputes, this effort may just not be worth it.
Currently, one issue with the TAL regime is that it lacks in legal teeth. While TAFEP, for example, can send reports of workplace discrimination to the Ministry of Manpower, it does not have the ability to sanction companies itself. MOM too seems to have a limited toolkit for dealing with these offenders, largely focused around placing restrictions on hiring foreign workers. This could be attributed to the current legal framework. Many of the anti-discrimination guidelines and best practices promoted by the Tripartite Alliance aren’t legally binding.
Fortunately, this might change, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announcing during this year’s National Day Rally that TAFEP’s anti-discrimination guidelines will be enshrined into law. According to him, “this will give (the guidelines) more teeth, and expand the range of actions we can take”.
All of this is notwithstanding the fact that some employees are not seeking recourse or compensation, but a change in culture and behaviour. MOM can penalise discriminatory hiring managers or unreasonable bosses, but if those managers and bosses stay in their positions, there will fundamentally be no change.
Perhaps, the employees at NOC knew that no amount of recourse or compensation could substitute for the change in leadership they felt was needed. Hence, instead of relying on Government-provided avenues, they took matters into their own hands.