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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Company in Distress: Insolvency Issues relating to Employees

Under Malaysia’s movement control restrictions and with COVID-19, companies are facing cash-flow issues and financial difficulties. With the employers facing such difficulties, the employees may also face salary cuts (for example, see this news report) or retrenchment. Companies may then slip closer towards financial distress and may have to pursue restructuring and insolvency options. This article sets out the insolvency issues relating to employees.

I set out the different scenarios where a company in distress may pursue a scheme of arrangement, apply for judicial management, end up placed in receivership or is compulsorily wound up. I touch on how these scenarios will affect the rights of employees. Continue reading

Case Update: Insufficient justification and improper handling of Voluntary Separation Scheme may give rise to unfair dismissal

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.

Retrenchments are an ever-present issue in the Malaysian industrial relations landscape. The Malaysian Employers Federation has forecast that 30,000 employees will be laid-off this year. The proper handling of retrenchments is a constant challenge for employers, and disputes often arise. The Ministry of Human Resources recently announced that terminations due to retrenchment were the most common reason for unfair dismissal cases received by the Industrial Relations Department over the past 10 years, accounting for 30% of all cases.

Many employers make the mistake of assuming that implementing a retrenchment exercise is a straightforward way of getting rid of unwanted employees, or downsizing the workforce to cut costs. I’ve written about some of the legal issues related to retrenchment in two earlier articles:

  1. In “What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees”, I summarised the key Malaysian legal principles in relation to retrenchments. Essentially, it is the prerogative of the management to decide on the reorganisation of its business, and the courts will not intervene unless it is shown that the employer’s decision was not in good faith.
  2. In an earlier article in this Case Update series — “Case Update: Relevant issues when an employer uses financial difficulties as a reason for retrenchment” — I wrote about a case where the Industrial Court held that an employer relying on financial difficulties to justify retrenchment had to prove it was experiencing financial difficulties, and to show the financial savings it made through the retrenchment.

In the recent case of Suseela Devi Balakrishnan v. Inti International College Kuala Lumpur Sdn Bhd (Award No. 343 of 2019), the Industrial Court considered a scenario where the employment relationship ended based on a voluntary separation scheme (“VSS”) arising from a redundancy scenario, and the employee subsequently claimed that she was dismissed without just cause and excuse.

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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: What can an employer do upon discovering that an employee lied in a job application?

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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.

The hiring process can often be tricky for employers. In the Malaysian job market, it is common for employers to receive hundreds of applications for certain vacancies. Employers then have to comb through these applications, shortlist candidates to be interviewed, and make a hiring decision based on fairly limited information.

To reduce the time spent on this process, many employers do not conduct thorough background checks on job applicants. The experience and employment history stated in the applications are often assumed to be accurate, with some allowance given for an expected reasonable degree of exaggeration.

What is the recourse for an employer who, soon after hiring an individual, realises that the employee had lied in his job application? Does this false information constitute just cause for an employment termination, or will the dismissal enable the employee to bring a successful unfair dismissal claim?

The Industrial Court considered these issues in two recent awards — Khoo Kim Loang v. Shock Media Studio Sdn Bhd (Award No. 51 of 2018) on 4 January 2018, and Khoo Kim Loang v. Kim Siah Electric Co Sdn Bhd (Award No. 137 of 2018) on 12 January 2018 — interestingly both involving the same Employee.

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Case Update: Federal Court decides whether punishable misconduct in employment law is distinguishable from criminal conduct

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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.

Misconduct is one of the reasons which would qualify as “just cause” for an employer to dismiss an employee.

However, it’s not straightforward to pin down an exact definition of what constitutes “misconduct”. Even in instances where actions can be broadly categorised as misconduct, there is often confusion as to whether —

  • a misconduct is serious enough to justify dismissal instead of a lighter sanction; and
  • the standards to be applied to misconduct in the context of employment law are the same as those in respect of criminal wrongdoing.

This potential for confusion was illustrated in a recent case dealing with an employee dismissal for misconduct which went from the Industrial Court (“IC”) through to the High Court (“HC”), Court of Appeal (“COA”), and was ultimately decided by the Federal Court (“FC”). The issues were fully considered in the recent grounds of judgment of the FC dated 8 January 2018 in Akira Sales & Services (M) Sdn Bhd v Nadiah Zee binti Abdullah and Another Appeal (Federal Court Civil Appeal Nos. 01-15-05/2016 and 01-16-05/2016).

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