Will new employment claims tribunal help with pay disputes?

labour force

Daniel Yap works in the media industry and enjoys blogging on social and political issues. He is married with four children. He blogs also at: http://doulosyap.wordpress.com


Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin announced a new Small Claims Employment Tribunal at the Ministry of Manpower’s workplan brief on 24 April, signaling an intention to enhance the salary claims process. An official date for establishing this tribunal was not announced.

Today, a worker who wants to bring an employer to task for unpaid or underpaid monies will have to work through the Small Claims Tribunal, go to the Labour Court or take on a civil suit – all of which can be disruptive, time-consuming processes which are often not worth the monies recovered.

As a result, many pay issues go unattended and are never raised, which in turn means that many bad employment practices with smaller consequences can often continue unchecked.

This move follows a push by Labour MP Patrick Tay at the Committee of Supply debate in March for a “tripartite mediation process (that) can be complemented with an employment tribunal possibly with direct involvement by tripartite partners so that disputes that are unable to be resolved at tripartite mediation can be expeditiously adjudicated.”

Much potential, much effort needed

The Small Claims Employment Tribunal, which Acting Minister Tan called “expeditious and affordable”, is for all workers, including managers and executives earning above $4,500. The current scope of the Employment Act means that such middle and upper managers would have to pursue expensive and lengthy civil suits in cases of wage disputes.

The potential for this tribunal is significant if properly implemented. Hopefully, more employment claims disputes will now be worth raising, and will be resolved more quickly. This will mean better protection for both workers and employers against unfair treatment or unfair claims.

The process needs to be as painless as possible for all parties, and success stories need to be shared widely, otherwise skepticism will remain and this tribunal will be ineffective.

This means that MOM may have to do more legwork in the interim, while the employment landscape adjusts to norms of claims and how to avoid these incidents.

With an effective process in place, employers and workers alike will be discouraged from engaging in needless pay disputes, setting a new norm for the employment environment that is more balanced and just.


The new tribunal is still being conceived, with many details undefined, but one thing is clear – it cannot diminish the role of unions, which must remain at the frontline of wage dispute resolution. Effective and mutually beneficial collective wage bargaining must continue to be the frontline so that disputes are minimized and the tribunal only has to catch outliers and recalcitrants.

There will be a claims limit, yet undefined, so longstanding issues have to be raised early before claims exceed a certain threshold.

Minister Tan also cautioned that the tribunal cannot resolve all disputes – the nature of human relations means that there will always be some level of unhappiness and blurred lines where a decision is not clear-cut.

The Ministry of Manpower “will continue to consult and engage (their) stakeholders on the Tribunal Proposal in the following months”

Questions remain

In its nascent form, questions still remain: How will this new tribunal integrate with current Labour Court, or with the Small Claims Tribunal?

Will it cover freelancers and project workers? Stories abound of models, photographers, musicians and other such professions having payment withheld, disputed or excessively delayed. Hopefully this tribunal will protect them as well.






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