Significant Legal and Policy Developments
By Ronald Wong
Trafficking in Persons (TIP)
Singapore acceded the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (also known as the Palermo Protocol) on 28 September 2015. Since 2010, after the U.S. State Department downgraded Singapore on the TIP watch list, the Singapore Government has taken various steps to address the TIP problem in Singapore. The Inter-Agency Taskforce on TIP was set up. Consultations were conducted. Partnerships with certain NGOs were forged to provide victim care. The Prevention of Human Trafficking Act was passed and enacted in March this year.
The recent accession of the Protocol was the logical next step. It is an indication that the Government believes it has taken the necessary steps to fulfil the legal obligations under the treaty. This is to be lauded. HealthServe has been engaging the Government on this since 2010. Yet, this is just the beginning of a long journey of tackling TIP in Singapore. For a start, it remains unclear to Government and civic society alike what the real extent of the problem is. Empirical data is scarce. While POHTA has been passed, there's only been one case which was reportedly brought under the same. Perhaps more specialized expertise needs to be brought in to inquire into the nature of the problem locally.
Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) compensation limits
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) recently announced on 5 October 2015 that from 1 January 2016, the maximum and minimum WICA compensation limits for death, permanent incapacity and medical expenses will be increased as follows:
|Existing Limit||New Limit|
|Medical expenses||Up to $30,000 or 1 year from date of injury, whichever reached earlier||Up to $36,000 or 1 year from date of injury, whichever reached earlier|
Additionally, treatments that facilitate early return to work will be claimable as part of WICA medical expenses. This would cover charges for physiotherapy and occupational and speech therapy, case management, psychotherapy, functional capacity evaluation and worksite assessment for purposes of rehabilitating an injured employee back to work, and the cost of medicines and artificial limbs and surgical appliances.
This announcement is to be lauded. Many migrant workers work in construction and maritime industries and are especially vulnerable to work injuries. The increase in compensation limits is meant to reflect a general increase in employee wages since 2012, given that the compensation amounts are pegged to wages. Further, the decision to include medical expenses for rehabilitation is a sensible move and to be welcomed as low-wage migrant and Singaporean workers may be unable to afford such rehabilitative treatment. The sooner an injured worker is able to return to work, the better. This is because from HealthServe’s experience, the injured worker who spends an extended period of time out of work is especially vulnerable to loss of dignity and purpose, aimlessness and mental issues such as depression.
On the topic of workplace injury, it was recently noted by the Government that ‘fall from height’ accidents in workplaces have increased to numbers which are “worrying and unacceptable”. It was reported that more of such accidents took place in the first 10 months this year than in all of 2014. In the first 10 months this year, 16 people died and 87 suffered major injuries (including amputation, blindness and paralysis) in such accidents. Last year, 10 died and 88 suffered major injuries. In a recent reported incident, MOM charged a marketing and communications firm for failing to pay a senior art director who fell a flight of stairs in the office for medical leave wages, medical expenses and permanent incapacity compensation ordered by MOM under WICA. This case is a first for involving a non-manual worker. The firm is reportedly winding up. In HealthServe’s past cases, such occurrences are common. A corporate employer ordered to pay a worker for WICA or salary claims would wind up, leaving the worker without recourse. In some instances, the shareholders/directors would simply incorporate another company and operate its business under the different legal entity. It is pertinent to consider regulations which prevent such conduct.
Employment Act Amendments
The Employment Act was amended on 17 August 2015 and the amendments will take effect on 1 April 2016. Significant proposed amendments to the Employment Act include:
(a) itemised payslips: employers shall have to give itemised payslips to employees in a prescribed form within a prescribed time and in the event that an employee resigns or is dismissed (section 96);
(b) employee records: employees shall have to keep complete and accurate records of their present and former employees containing certain prescribed particulars for a prescribed retention period; present and former employees would be entitled to access these records (section 95);
(c) written key employment terms: employees shall have to give employees a written record of their key employment terms no later than 14 days after start of employment or such other prescribed period (section 95A).
The above legislative amendments are to be welcomed. In many cases involving low-wage migrant and Singaporean workers, there is no clarity and certainty on employment terms and important things like entitlement to salary. This is unfairly favourable to the employer because the employer is often able to use its stronger bargaining power to assert certain powers and rights when it suits them. It is hoped that employers will comply with the spirit of this law, which would in any event be beneficial for both employers and employees given the clarity on expectations in the employment relationship, which is one that must be founded on trust and confidence between the parties.
 See Work Injury Compensation Act (Amendment of Third Schedule) Order 2015; Third Schedule of the Work Injury Compensation Act.
 Aw Cheng Wei, “More workers die in falls from height”, The Straits Times (27 November 2015).
 Joanna Seow, “Firm failed to compensate non-manual worker for injury”, The Straits Times (14 November 2015).