WORKERS who are denied their wages will be able to turn to a new labour tribunal, which will open its doors to all local employees, regardless of how much they earn.
The Small Claims Employment Tribunal, proposed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), is expected to benefit 2.1 million employees, including permanent residents, when it is launched at a yet to be determined date.
Besides the tribunal, the ministry also wants all firms to put in writing in employment contracts key terms such as salary, job scope and hours of work, to reduce the possibility of a dispute.
These two initiatives will ensure that Singapore's labour laws "keep pace and remain relevant" as the labour market changes, said Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday.
The changes come as firms grapple with a manpower crunch following curbs on the inflow of foreign workers, and in the wake of wide-ranging changes to the Employment Act which took effect this month.
Workers who earn up to $2,500 a month, up from $2,000 before, are now protected by labour laws. That works out to 150,000 more rank-and-file workers.
Still, PMEs earning more than $4,500 are left out. But the MOM, in a statement yesterday, said its new tribunal will be available to all local workers.
It will model the tribunal after the Small Claims Tribunal which currently handles consumer disputes involving sums of up to $10,000, or even $20,000 if both parties in the dispute agree.
MOM similarly wants claims at the labour tribunal to be capped, but it has neither fixed the amount nor set a date for its launch, saying that it will consult unions, employers and the public "in the coming months" before coming to any decision.
More details will be announced when ready, MOM said.
Experts say the move will allow most disputes to be resolved within a year, as compared with civil suits which can drag on for more than one year and incur hefty legal fees, which can come to tens of thousands of dollars, especially if court hearings are involved.
"For companies, you don't really want disputes to drag on and cause morale issues," said Singapore National Employers Federation president Stephen Lee. "Companies will also welcome a cost-effective and fast way to settle."
While welcoming the announcement, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) assistant secretary- general Patrick Tay said: "I hope that there will not be a salary limit so that we can cover as many workers as possible... The devil is in the details."
He added that NTUC hopes to broaden the scope of a current mediation arrangement for workers in non-unionised firms so that not all disputes have to go to the new tribunal.
As for clearer contract terms, the MOM will issue guidelines to firms this year. These guidelines, along with itemised payslips, will become compulsory in two years, said Mr Tan at the MOM's workplan seminar at the Orchid Country Club. This is an annual event in which the ministry lays out its key plans for the year.
Other changes expected this year include revisions to the Industrial Relations Act and a new committee of unionists, employers and government officials to implement a wage ladder in the landscape sector.