Ex-bus driver's lawsuit against SBS Transit for unfair work practices to be heard in High Court

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SINGAPORE: A judge has granted a bid by a former bus driver to have his case against SBS Transit for allegedly unfair work practices – including long work hours and unpaid overtime – heard in the High Court.

Justice Audrey Lim said in a written judgment released on Thursday (Jun 10) that the case raises important questions of law to warrant the move to the higher court from the Magistrate's Courts.

Although the case was mounted by one bus driver, Mr Chua Qwong Meng, another 12 drivers are linked to it. Mr Chua claims that about S$720,000 is involved in the allegations of all 13 suits, which include unpaid overtime fees and contentions on the maximum consecutive number of work days allowed.

The case affects not only the bus driver in the case but a larger class of employees including those in the public transport sector, said the judge.

Lawyer M Ravi represented Mr Chua and the other 12 bus drivers, while SBS Transit was represented by a team of lawyers led by Senior Counsel Davinder Singh.

Mr Chua worked for SBS Transit from April 2017 to early 2020. He commenced his suit against the company for breaches of contract and provisions of the Employment Act on Sep 20, 2019. 

Four other bus drivers commenced similar proceedings in the Magistrates' Courts that same day, and another eight drivers launched their own suits subsequently.

In total, 13 bus drivers are suing SBS Transit over what the judge said are essentially the same matters pertaining to their employment.

They are: Mr Chua, Mr Lee Chye Chong, Mr Chian Poh Seng, Mr Fung Chean Seng, Mr Tan Ting Hock Robin, Mr Thiyagu Balan, Mr GAn Kim Kiam, Mr Huzainal Hussein, Mr Lim You Onn, Mr Chiew Yi Yee, Mr Meerah Mohamed Halideen, Mr Razak Hasim and Mr Mohamad Sani Din.

It was agreed on Mar 4 last year that Mr Chua's case would be heard as a test case, with the other 12 suits held in abeyance pending the determination of his case.

READ: 5 bus drivers sue SBS Transit in dispute over working hours and overtime pay

MR CHUA'S CLAIMS

Mr Chua claims that SBS Transit breached the Employment Act by not giving him a rest day per week. Its employment practices were also allegedly in breach of the Manpower Ministry's regulated pay rate that an employer is expected to pay for work done during a rest day.

Mr Chua also claims that he was underpaid for overtime work, and that the company did not pay him the statutorily prescribed rate for working on a rest day.

As a result, he worked in excess of the prescribed work hours in a day or week. He also claims that the company did not pay him an agreed allowance for work done on the night shift.

SBS Transit denies the claims and asserts that it has complied with contractual obligations and laws, rules or regulations on working hours, overtime pay and rest days.

It claims that it compensated Mr Chua in compliance with his employment contract, which started in 2017, as well as with the law and the Manpower Ministry's guidelines.

MR RAVI'S ARGUMENTS, AND MR DAVINDER SINGH'S

Mr Ravi argued for the case to be transferred to the High Court as it involves an important question of law and is a test case.

He said the questions of law - which include how "rest days" are interpreted and whether an employee can work for 12 consecutive days over a 14-day period - will impact not only the plaintiffs but the whole of the employment sector in Singapore.

The 13 suits amount to S$720,000, which is beyond the district court's limit, he said.

Mr Singh objected to having the case heard in the High Court, claiming abuse of court process and saying there is no important question of law.

He said there is nothing to suggest that the issues raise difficult or complex issues. The State Courts regularly deal with disputes involving the interpretation of employment agreements and the provisions of the Employment Act, he added.

He said Mr Chua has not shown credible evidence that damages in his suit would exceed S$250,000, the jurisdictional limit of the district court.

Justice Lim said an important question of law need not necessarily be a complex or difficult one, and that just because the State Courts deal with employment disputes does not mean there may not be important questions of law in the provisions of the Employment Act.

She found that the questions of law in this case are important ones which affect a larger class of employees, pointing to how 12 other drivers filed similar suits.

"The Employment Act provides for mandated rest days and limits to hours of work (among other matters) to protect the rights of employees," she said.

"The question of whether this can be 'overridden' in a case where an employee is deemed to provide essential services, which on its face may not look like a difficult question, is important as it affects a larger population of workers in general," the judge said. 

The case would have potential ramifications on how such contracts are structured in terms of granting days off, computing overtime pay and determining work hours, she added.

The case will be heard at a later date.