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Asia employment law bulletin 2021

Singapore

Developments in the light of COVID-19

Often cited as being the ‘new normal’, it is becoming apparent that employers in Singapore (as with their counterparts worldwide) will not be completely discontinuing telecommuting and work-from-home arrangements, even as COVID-19 vaccines become publicly available. As of the time of writing, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in Singapore has continued to require at least partial remote working, and are likely to continue doing so at least for the foreseeable future.

Vaccination programs

As Singapore begins rolling out its vaccination program, a key question on employers’ minds is whether they can compel employees to take the vaccine.  The answer is likely to be no. The Singapore government encourages everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (and has promised free vaccines to all Singaporeans and long term residents), but it will be voluntary. Whether that will remain the case should vaccination acceptance rates prove low is still up in the air, but so far, take-up rates have been relatively high. Corporate employers will, in most circumstances, find it challenging to make it mandatory for employees to be vaccinated.

Requirements for employing foreigners

An issue that has been brought to the forefront by the pandemic is that of the employment of foreign talents amidst the economic contraction and uncertainty that we are facing. Alongside those in parliament stressing the need to protect the jobs of Singaporeans, the processes and eligibility criteria for work passes (required for foreign employees to work in Singapore) have also been tightened significantly.

Employers looking to employ foreign professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) and mid-skilled workers now have to advertise job openings on the national jobs portal for 28 days – double the previously required duration, to ensure that fair consideration is given to Singaporeans. Only then will employers be able to apply for Employment Passes (for PMEs) or S-Passes (for mid-skilled workers). Employers who pre-select a foreigner and go through a mere box ticking exercise may still find themselves facing administrative penalties, and even criminal prosecutions. Further, foreign PMEs the salary requirements to qualify for an Employment Pass have now been raised to a fixed monthly salary of at least S$4,500 (c. USD 3,399)  (or higher, if an employee works in the financial services sector, or are older and more experienced).

Dismissal and trade union actions

Trade unions have also stepped up their efforts during this period to protect unionised employees from unfair dismissals. In July 2020, three unions took steps to take industrial action against an employer who went ahead with a planned dismissal exercise before talks were concluded with the unions. This sounds unremarkable until one considers that the last union-sanctioned strike in Singapore was in 1986.

Expected trend in 2021

There has been a discernible trend towards the protection of employees. This trend began some years ago but was greatly accelerated in 2019 when Singapore’s Employment Act was amended to extend its coverage to all PMEs, and the Employment Claims Tribunals were empowered to hear wrongful dismissal claims.

This trend is expected to continue into 2021 and beyond. The authorities have made it clear that while Singapore will very much remain a global hub open for business, its foreign worker policies are not going to be relaxed any time soon and employee protections are here to stay regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ian Lim, TSMP Law Corporation
Nicholas Ngo, TSMP Law Corporation