(The following was shared by Johnny Lau, 49)
I was hoping to share plainly what’s happening between SIEU, NTUC Income and the aggrieved agents and I tried to do this with as little legalese as possible.
SIEU: The Singapore Insurance Employee’s Union
NTUC Income: A social enterprise belonging to the NTUC.
M. Ravi: A lawyer specialising in high profile cases
The background: 3 insurance agents filed a suit against the Singapore Insurance Employees’ Union (SIEU). They alleged the union had taken the side of NTUC Income. Claiming the insurance company “forced” the trio to sign a new contract last year.
This new contract would change their employment status from Income employees to independent agents. This would mean they would see a loss of employment benefits such as paid sick leave and retrenchment benefits.
Sometime last year, Income informed 660 workers that it had under-declared their incomes for two decades.
How did this happen?
(The following three paragraphs are verbatim from AsiaOne to save time)
On top of sales commissions and annual bonuses, Income agents received a third form of compensation in the form of additional quarterly incentives. This was to further motivate the agents to stay active throughout the year in their sales efforts.
When these incentives were introduced more than 20 years ago, they were generally non-monetary and not significant in value – and, as a result, NTUC Income did not include them in tax filings.
Over the years, the incentive grew in size and became cash payments, but NTUC Income continued its earlier practice of not declaring them. The error was discovered in the second half of 2011 during a separate internal review of the status of its agents, to consider the question of whether the agents were employees of NTUC Income or self-employed.
So is that a bad thing?
Well, in the insurance world, it is not common practice for agents to be full-time employees earning a fixed salary in the first place. But do remember that NTUC Income had already paid everything that was due to the agents.
So at the end?
The case was dismissed by Justice Choo Han Teck. He added that the judgment should not prejudice any future legal action against Income or SIEU. He also ordered them to pay costs.
So how did the plaintiffs feel?
Terrible I must imagine. M. Ravi argued that SIEU failed to provide fair representation. But the union’s lawyer Joseph Liow countered that the dispute was considered settled when more than 98 per cent of the workers involved signed new contracts.
Also, since the contracts terminated their status as employees, the union could no longer represent them in this case.
The agents hired Ravi to sue the union, not go to IAC. Ravi, a learned lawyer should know that the IAC is not the correct route to take and should have advised the plaintiff against it.
I don’t think NTUC Income is out to cheat anyone. If so, why would they have given them full time employment and a comprehensive reward program in the first place? Especially when the industry standard is otherwise?
Furthermore, the current Income management tried hard to do the right thing. They made all the declarations, the back payment in taxes, in short, pay where payment was due. (http://news.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130413-415723.html)
Was the union in a position to help the employees? They couldn’t, they had no legitimacy in this particular case. The three plaintiffs claimed that they had signed the contracts under duress, but it wasn’t just the three of them… over 600 agents signed this.
Was the signing a bad thing? Not at all, because – remember: prior to the signing, there was a lot of ambiguity over who’s an employee and who’s not. The contracts made it clear what each one was entitled to. (http://news.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130416-416366.html)
It is not clear at this point if the three agents have/had a case. But this was a matter that was perhaps handled poorly.
Ravi’s public comments after the case was merely, “Today’s judgment highlights the need for reform in the law.”
I don’t think so Ravi, maybe there just needs to be a reform of how you approached this case.
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