SINGAPORE: A retrenchment exercise by Eagle Services Asia (ESA) was halted by aerospace and aviation unions after it was found the aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) firm had not followed due process in letting go of its workers.
In the process, legal industrial action, which received "overwhelming support" from workers and was approved by the labour chief Ng Chee Meng, was averted.
In a joint statement on Wednesday (Jul 29), the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and three unions representing Eagle Services staff said the firm had proceeded to release specific workers on Jul 22, before a name list was finalised with the unions.
This was despite the firm having been in ongoing negotiations with the unions - namely the Air Transport Executive Staff Union, SIA Engineering Company Engineers and Executives Union and the Singapore Airlines Staff Union.
"When the unions were alerted that ESA management had gone ahead to start informing employees that they may be retrenched, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the unions took decisive action and stepped in to stop any further action by the company until an agreement could be reached," the statement said.
"The lack of transparency and disregard for negotiations with the unions is not acceptable and is not how a retrenchment exercise should be conducted," it added.
Media reports earlier this week stated that Eagle Services Asia - a joint venture between Singapore Airlines (SIA) Engineering, and US aerospace company Pratt and Whitney - had laid off 144 of its employees between Jul 22 and 24.
However, the firm later said that no employee was retrenched on those dates, and that all its employees were still on its payroll.
The union statement noted that even as the unions continued negotiations with Eagle Services Asia, they separately engaged with their members.
A secret ballot - authorised by NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng - was conducted to sanction legal industrial action to "rectify any shortcomings and improve the retrenchment process, if and where necessary".
READ: NTUC proposes framework as it calls on companies to fairly treat workers affected by retrenchments
"WE WANTED A FAIR NEGOTIATION"
In a statement on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Mr Ng said he had received messages about a week ago from workers and unions about an "unfair" retrenchment exercise.
"While NTUC respects management’s needed measures to keep the business viable, we will stand up for our workers’ dignity, interests and fair play," he said, adding that this is done through a collaborative approach under the Fair Retrenchment Framework.
The framework, first proposed by NTUC last week, aims to help protect workers' rights and ensure fair treatment for those affected by retrenchments.
"To let everyone understand that NTUC will stand up to protect our workers, I authorised our unions to prepare for industrial action should it become necessary to persuade management not to take unilateral decisions. We wanted a fair negotiation," said Mr Ng on Wednesday.
Workers gave their "overwhelming support" to pursue legal industrial action, the labour chief said.
He added that "calm and good sense" ultimately prevailed, and an amicable agreement was reached with Eagle Services Asia on the retrenchment.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said Eagle Services Asia's move to take "certain unilateral decisions" without consulting the ministry and unions is not aligned with the tripartite advisory.
"MOM understands and empathise with the workers’ grievances," said the ministry.
"We are glad that ESA took steps to rectify their earlier decisions and eventually were able to come to an amicable arrangement with the union to address the concerns of the workers, while maintaining good tripartite relations."
The decision to retrench workers was not taken lightly, said Eagle Services Asia.
"This is unfortunately a result of current market conditions we are facing, including customer-driven volume declines due to a generational pandemic no one could foresee," said a spokesperson for the firm.
The decision to reduce the company's Singapore workforce came after the implementation of other cost-cutting measures such as a temporary salary reduction and short work week, cancelled merit increases, hiring freezes and discretionary spending cuts, the spokesperson added.
Eagle Services Asia did not address concerns that it had engaged in unfair retrenchment practices.
ALL OTHER OPTIONS TO BE EXHAUSTED BEFORE RETRENCHMENT
The union statement noted that unions and the firm's management had reviewed the selection criteria and names of employees to be retrenched to ensure that the "Singaporean Core" - referring to local workers - was safeguarded, even as "due considerations" were given to foreign workers.
It added that the unions had negotiated for an additional training grant for all affected union members, on top of the "fair" compensation package offered to affected employees.
Staff from the NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) were also on-site during the retrenchment to provide support and help match affected employees to job placement opportunities.
"Union leaders were on-site to assist affected employees and to provide support during this difficult time," the statement said.
"NTUC would like to reiterate that while retrenchments may be inevitable, companies must exhaust all other options before making the call to retrench employees," it stated.
READ: Flights grounded, fewer repairs: Singapore’s aerospace industry feels knock-on effects of COVID-19
"NTUC understands these are tough times. Nonetheless, there must still be fair play and proper process accorded to affected workers in any retrenchment," said labour chief Mr Ng.
"At the end of the day, while NTUC and our unions may not be able to save every job, we will do our best to protect the rights and interests of every worker. We will do so in a fair way to our employer partners as well."
Earlier this month British jet engine-maker Rolls-Royce announced it would cut about 240 jobs in Singapore, or about 24 per cent of its local workforce, due to the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.