Case Update: Court of Appeal sets out key legal principles for retrenchments

In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

Retrenchment exercises have been a regular occurrence in the Malaysian industrial relations landscape for many years now. This looks set to continue deep into 2021, as employers respond to the challenges created by the on-going pandemic. Despite this prevalence, many employers often mishandle retrenchment exercises, with significant consequences.

The recent Court of Appeal (“the COA”) case of Ng Chang Seng v. Technip Geoproduction (M) Sdn Bhd & Anor [2021] 1 CLJ 365 usefully sets out some key legal and practical principles that all employers should consider when embarking on a retrenchment exercise. Among others, the judgment in the Ng Chang Seng case covered the following issues:

  1. What issues does the court consider when deciding whether the employer has proved a genuine redundancy?
  2. How can an employer justify not using Last-In First-Out (“LIFO”) for employee selection?
  3. Does an employer always have to retrench all foreign employees before retrenching Malaysian employees?
  4. Does the rehiring of some retrenched employees on a contract basis mean that there was no genuine redundancy?
  5. How much weight does the court give to non-compliance with the Code of Conduct for Industrial Harmony (“the Code of Conduct”)?

You can find all our previous posts on retrenchments by clicking on the tag here. Some of my earlier articles have been very popular and should prove useful:

  1. Retrenchments in Malaysia — some recent cases (29 May 2020).
  2. Case Update: Insufficient justification and improper handling of Voluntary Separation Scheme may give rise to unfair dismissal (20 March 2019).
  3. What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees (22 January 2016).

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Changes to the Industrial Relations Act from January 2021: Highlights and practical impact on employee exits

Some important changes to Malaysia’s Industrial Relations Act came into force on 1 January 2021, pursuant to the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2020 (“the Amendment Act”). The changes heavily affect unfair dismissal claims — from the pre-trial conciliation process through to appealing an Industrial Court decision — and may significantly impact employee terminations.

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Retrenchments in Malaysia — some recent cases

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on jobs around the world. Almost every country has experienced an economic downturn, and as businesses struggle to steady the ship and stay afloat, many employers have been doing their best to retain their employees where possible. It has been a very busy 2020 for employment lawyers and HR professionals.

Unfortunately, for employers in many industries, COVID-19 has negatively affected their revenues too significantly, and cutting jobs has become the only solution to keep the businesses going. This has also been the case in Malaysia, where the Movement Control Order crippled many businesses, and the government has been unable to provide meaningful assistance to employers. For example, the aid provided under the Prihatin wage subsidy program is very low and short-term compared to other countries, and comes with conditions attached that make it impractical for many employers.

As a result, there have already been many retrenchments carried out in Malaysia, with even more to come. Indicative of the times, in the past couple of months, we have suddenly seen a significant amount of traffic on an old article I published here in January 2016 — “What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees”.

But retrenchments can be tricky. Over the years I’ve seen many employers make mistakes that result in unfair dismissal claims, a messy and costly court process, and sometimes very big court awards to be paid to former employees. Often, these mistakes are made even by employers who have done their research on the law, and sometimes even by those who have obtained legal advice (which ultimately turned out to be incomplete or flawed).

Knowing how to properly carry out a retrenchment exercise — and knowing what practical mistakes and missteps to avoid — comes with experience. It also helps greatly to analyse how other businesses have implemented retrenchments (both properly and improperly), and so in this article I set out very brief summaries of a selection of retrenchment-related decisions by the Industrial Court in the past year.

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Case Update: Priority of Wages under the Employment Act over Debenture Holder Debts

The High Court issued its grounds of judgment dated 18 July 2019 in the case of Perwaja Steel Sdn Bhd (in receivership) v RHB Bank Berhad & 789 Others. Justice Darryl Goon delivered the decision.

The main issue was whether wages under section 31 of the Employment Act 1955 (Employment Act) would have priority over the debts owed to the debenture holder.

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Case Update: Is a clause in an employee handbook effective if an employee claims not to have read it?

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In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

Identifying the terms and conditions that apply to an employment relationship is often not as straightforward as reading through an employment contract.

It is the norm, particularly in large employer organisations which span multiple jurisdictions, for these terms and conditions to be set out in several documents. As a minimum, many employers would have an offer letter, the main employment contract, and an employee handbook. These are then supplemented by further individual policies, such as those in relation to personal data, BYOD, IT, benefits, discipline, workplace conduct, grievance procedures — the list is close to endless. The difficulty in determining which terms apply is further complicated when these documents (or parts of some of these documents) are amended or updated over the years.

Problems arise when an employer seeks to apply or enforce some of the terms set out in one of those documents, and the employee claims to not be aware of it — or contends that the document does not apply. The Industrial Court recently considered one such case in Ho Seng Fatt v. Strateq System Sdn Bhd (Award No. 279 of 2018).

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Case Update: Factors considered by the Industrial Court in determining the identity of the employer in a multi-jurisdictional employment relationship

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In this Case Update series, I share summaries of recent Malaysian court decisions to explore the current approach taken by the courts when deciding on employment-related issues. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking here, including case updates on other legal areas by TheMalaysianLawyer co-founder Lee Shih.

In this era of the multinational corporation, it is common for employees to be carrying out most (or even all) of their work in one jurisdiction, while technically being employed by an employer entity in another jurisdiction. This could either be because the employer does not have a local entity, or because the employee was initially employed by an entity in one jurisdiction but was subsequently assigned to a post in another jurisdiction, or for a host of other commercial reasons.

We therefore see increasingly complicated employment relationships — the core employment contract being supplemented by assignments, secondments, or some other similar arrangements both formal or otherwise — which in time can lead to confusion over who the actual employer entity is, and more importantly, which jurisdiction the employer is in. Some of these arrangements can get even more convoluted with the introduction of other structures such as third party employment or payroll service providers or local host entities.

Identifying the correct employer entity becomes important when an employee seeks recourse at the Industrial Court. It is not as straightforward as determining which entity pays the employee’s salary, or owns the office the employee spends most of his time in. Once it is determined that the employer entity is in another jurisdiction, can the Industrial Court hear the matter?

The relevant factors were recently considered by the Industrial Court in two cases — Lars Kruse Thomsen v. Hot-Can Sdn Bhd (Award No. 1629 of 2017), and John Brian Chesson v. Baker Hughes (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd (Award No. 119 of 2018).

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