Surbana should not treat their workers like commodities to be traded at will

(The following article contain my isolated opinions and do not represent, nor imply to represent any person or organisation)




Background: Surbana Jurong had fired 54 workers, two weeks before the Chinese New Year on the basis of poor performance. 14 of the workers are members of a union (BATU, the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees Union).

Surbana’s reasoning include:

  • Citing reasonability in removing poor performing workers, companies should not suffer the drag of poor performers
  • 54 out of 3000 workers represent less than 1% of their workforce

My argument against Surbana starts from this principal: that employees are not commodities. People in a workforce can be motivated or trained to improve. On the converse, they may also work against you if there are reasons to.

You cannot say that “54 out of 3000” is merely 1% – when it comes to people, you don’t quantify their lives like this. It is like saying 1% loss of your liver is fine. Why not tell a politician that a loss of 1% in an election is not a problem?

If we were that cold about it, why not just cull the poor and the sick to “decrease the surplus population”? This reference to Scrooge is apt – life and living is not just for the pursuit of capital alone.

Both employers and employees need each other and we want to establish a machinery that respects each other and understands they have a need for each other’s pursuits.

I am not disputing the fact that Surbana should not terminate employees. They have all the right and power to do so. However because this power to fire is so flexible, employees have also a right to know that this power is not abused.

Do we know that Surbana did not abuse their power? Well, we don’t.

Although you can fire for disciplinary reasons, employers are obligated by custom (and sometimes by contract or collective agreement) to do this through procedure and process. Part of this process is to provide written warnings, so as to allow the opportunity for employees to self-correct. Even when a termination is warranted, this must be done in a manner that allows for the employee to speak and to do this in accordance with process together with the trade union.

If process, professionalism and procedure are not followed when it comes to termination, a company can attract unnecessary attention and action by the Ministry of Manpower and its tripartite partners. Here are just some of the issues:

a.) The termination by Surbana was done most unprofessionally. Employees were sat in a room and presented a false choice: to either resign or face termination. Even if they accepted resignation, this may be construed as “constructive dismissal” contrary to contract.

b.) Then the company says that it fired because of poor performers. However, eight of the terminated staff were offered re-employment or had their contract renewed. Why would a company offer this if their performance was not satisfactory to begin with?

c.) Surbana then claimed that the termination of 54 workers was not a retrenchment. It works against logic. In fact, by repeatedly telling the public that it is not a retrenchment (here, I must use this Chinese proverb: 此地无银三百两) makes one wonder question whether or not the company was just trying to avoid paying retrenchment benefits, or whether or not they now have redundant staff because of recent acquisitions. Disguised retrenchments was precisely the issue that Patrick Tay, a labour MP raised in Parliament last year.

d.) Where labour politics is concerned, the trend is increasingly towards that of healthy social partnership. This is tripartism, a concept which Singapore had been practicing for decades. To preserve industrial peace, governments, unions and business people are learning to work together harmoniously and in good faith.
In the English Courts, judges have increasingly given power to implied term that “employers must not act in such a manner as to destroy the trust and confidence which should exist between employer and employee” (United Bank Ltd v Akhtar, Bliss v South East Thames and Johnson v UNISYS). Whilst this has not been exercised here, it should.

There is nothing wrong in exercising an employer’s right to terminate, demote or adjust salaries downwards. But they must exercise this power fairly, in good faith and demonstrate that they have done so.

Nasordin Mohd Hashim, president of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (BATU) expressed this well:

“All we ask for is fairness, transparency and accountability for our members. These are universal principles which all companies and unions should stand by.”



Rangosteen is an esteemed blogger and globetrotter. He’s gone around the world, lived life fiercely independent yet still finds time to care for family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *