In the lawsuit brought by 13 former and current bus drivers for SBS Transit, the main issue has revolved around how the company computes overtime pay.
In lawsuits filed in 2019 and 2020, the drivers claimed they were made to work without a rest day each week and were underpaid for their overtime work.
In June last year, High Court Judge Audrey Lim had said that the suit contained important legal issues that would affect a larger class of workers in Singapore, meaning that the case affects not only the drivers named in the suit but a larger group of workers, including others working in public transport. She decided to allow the drivers’ bid to move the case from a magistrate’s court to the High Court.
“The question of whether this can be ‘overridden’ in a case where an employee is deemed to provide essential services… is important, as it affects a larger population of workers in general and not just the immediate plaintiff or parties to the case,” said Justice Lim on June 10, 2021.
She said in a written judgment that she was allowing the case to be moved to the High Court, noting that the Employment Act provides for mandated rest days and limits the hours of work to protect employees’ rights.
On Mar 22, the first day of this year’s hearings, the main plaintiff, Mr Chua Qwong Meng, 62, said he had been made to work over the legal limit of 72 hours of overtime a month several times when he was with SBS Transit from April 2017 to February 2020.
He claims that through the company’s overtime guidelines, it gained four hours of “illegal overtime”. There had been times, he said, when he was made to work for seven days in a row or even more before he was given a rest day.
This was in breach of the Employment Act and his employment contract, said Mr Chua, who is seeking unspecified damages.
However, from the first day of the trial, SBS Transit has denied Mr Chua’s claims that he had been made to work over the legal limit of 72 hours of overtime in a month, The Straits Times reported. It disputes the calculations he made of his overtime hours, saying they were based on handwritten notes whose origins were unclear.
SBS Transit is represented by top litigator Davinder Singh, while the drivers are represented by Mr Lim Tean, who may be better known as an opposition politician and founder of People’s Voice took over the case from Mr Ravi M Ravi last year.
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On the second day of the trial, Mr Singh explained that the SBS Transit’s drivers benefit from a “built-in overtime” (BIOT) component in their salaries.
Mr Chua said he did not understand this component. ST quotes him as saying in Mandarin through an interpreter, “We are not highly educated; we are confused. How would we be able to understand these things?”
Mr Singh had suggested that because Mr Chua did not understand the BIOT scheme, his computation of the overtime he served had not been accurate and had caused him to allege that he had exceeded the allowed limit of 72 hours of overtime monthly.
The company made it mandatory in its employment contracts for drivers to work 48 hours weekly. This includes four hours of “built-in overtime”.
A driver who has worked 43.5 hours, excluding meal breaks and rest, is paid a salary plus the BIOT. Any work done beyond the 43.5-hour mark entitles drivers to earn overtime.
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This overtime pay, together with the weekly allowance drivers get, are computed at a higher rate due to the BIOT, said Mr Singh, who told Mr Chua that he had “completely misunderstood what BIOT was or is.”
Mr Singh told the court that when Mr Chua worked for SBS, he had never done more than 72 hours of overtime in a month.
SBS Transit’s CEO, Mr Cheng Siak Kian, took the stand on the third day of the trial and insisted that the company was transparent about the drivers’ pay.
He disagreed with Mr Lim’s assertion that the company’s BIOT scheme was confusing, “The formulation has carried across for many years and the workers have a long tradition of working with this kind of contract. I don’t think it’s an issue,” ST quotes the CEO as saying.
Mr Lim said the BIOT component is not stated in the drivers’ employment contract.
Justice, Audrey Lim, then asked if the contract states that the drivers’ salaries are based on a 48-hour workweek, which includes food breaks and rest times. In reply, Mr Cheng said that the contract says that overtime for each day begins after the eighth hour of work.
The legal limit for overtime is 44 hours per week. When drivers exceed this, the calculation is as follows. Four hours of overtime pay is calculated at an overtime rate of 1.5 times, which means they are paid the equivalent of six regular working hours.
In paying the amount for these six hours, four hours’ worth is added to the monthly basic salary, and the next two hours’ worth is given to drivers as a “weekly allowance”.
Mr Lim pointed out the complexity of these rules for drivers’ salaries and said they need not be this way.
But the SBS Transit CEO told him, “I inherited the company and these are the rules the union agreed to.”
Mr Lim told Mr Cheng, ”The company is effectively robbing your workers of four hours of overtime every week.”
But Mr Cheng shot back, “We pay at the overtime rate. It’s an agreement with the union. They wanted to have more hours in the basic package.”
The trial continues on Friday, Mar 25. Mr Lim said in a Facebook post on Mar 19 that the trial will last for ten days. /TISG
Lim Tean, who took over SBS Transit drivers’ case, says trial will proceed
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