SINGAPORE – More local workers sought help from the authorities for disputes with their employers on owed salaries and wrongful dismissals last year, amid the pandemic.

Latest figures published on Friday (July 9) showed the incidence of employment claims and appeals lodged by local employees had gone up from 2 per 1,000 employees in 2019 to 2.17 per 1,000 employees in 2020.

Most were salary claims, and more commonly found in the accommodation and food services, information and communications, and construction industries. Some of these sectors were more severely affected by the circuit breaker and movement restrictions, which could have given rise to disputes over basic pay.

About 59 per cent or 5,142 of the total 7,226 employment claims and appeals lodged with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) last year were from local employees.

In contrast with local employees, however, the incidence of employment claims by foreign employees fell sharply, from 5.13 claims per 1,000 employees in 2019 to 3.61 last year, according to the data from MOM and TADM.

This had the effect of pushing down the overall incidence of employment claims from 3.04 claims per 1,000 employees in 2019 to 2.59 per 1,000 employees in 2020.

Salary claims made up some 83 per cent of the complaints, and dismissal claims some 15 per cent.

When asked, MOM and TADM declined to provide a further breakdown on the types of claims made by local and foreign employees in 2020, and the comparable figures for 2019 and 2018.

Salary claims among local workers rose in 2020

Salary claims were less prevalent overall in 2020, falling from 2.68 per 1,000 employees in 2019 to 2.15 last year.

But among local employees, the prevalence of salary claims increased, from 1.53 per 1,000 local employees in 2019 to 1.61 in 2020.

Among foreign employees, the incidence of such claims fell from 4.98 claims per 1,000 foreign employees in 2019 to 3.47 in 2020.

Industries with the highest incidence of salary claims among foreign employees were arts, entertainment and recreation, accommodation and food services, as well as construction.

“One important reason for the improvement is MOM’s enhanced measures to detect and arrest salary issues among foreign employees since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said MOM and TADM.

The authorities said that about 84 per cent of salary claims were resolved within two months at TADM, with the remaining 16 per cent referred to the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) for adjudication.

“This is slightly lower than the 87 per cent figure in 2019 as mediated settlements were more challenging to arrive at due to more employers facing financial difficulties,” said MOM and TADM.

The weak economic climate made it more difficult for parties to agree on the payment terms, they noted.

Nevertheless, about 92 per cent of employees managed to fully recover their owed salaries with the help of the tripartite alliance and the tribunal.

Of the remainder, slightly more than half recovered their salaries partially, in cases where employers were unable to make full payment because of financial difficulties.

MOM and TADM said they helped these workers recover part of their owed salaries through other means, such as security bond insurers or main contractors, or from financial assistance schemes.

The remaining three percentage points of employees did not recover any salary. They were mostly “higher income earners” and did not qualify for financial relief.

In total, MOM and TADM recovered $15 million in owed salaries in 2020, a decline from the $29 million recovered in 2018.

Figures for salaries recovered in 2019 are not available. MOM and TADM said they recovered $23 million in the 18-month period from January 2019 to June 2020, but did not give a breakdown.

Wrongful dismissal claims remained low

In the second half of 2020, the incidence of wrongful dismissal claims stabilised after a spike in the second quarter.

Overall, the incidence rate remained low at 0.39 claims per 1,000 employees.

However, it was slightly higher among local employees at 0.5 claims per 1,000 local employees compared to 0.14 claims per 1,000 foreign employees.

“Not all employees who seek compensation or reinstatement by lodging dismissal claims were dismissed wrongfully. Some of these claims had arisen due to poor communication by their employers,” said MOM and TADM.

As such, only about 26 per cent of all wrongful dismissal claims were assessed to be substantiated, and the remaining 74 percent were unsubstantiated.

Last modified: July 9, 2021