Case Update: Unfair dismissal due to poor handling of mutual separation agreement

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 COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in constant pressure on employers across almost all industries. There have been widespread measures to manage the financial fallout from the global effects of the pandemic, including salary reductions, employee redesignations, retrenchments, and separation schemes.

It has become a common practice for employers to use Mutual Separation Agreements (MSAs) — which also go by various other names such as “settlement agreements”, “separation agreements”, and “termination agreements” — to bypass or shortcut the usual termination processes. Many employers, as well as employees, view MSAs as a “cleaner” way of ending the employment relationship — instead of feeling like s/he has been “sacked”, the employee can be made to feel that the exit is on his/her terms, and employers prefer the certainty of clearly documented and mutually-agreed terms.

However, it is not uncommon for MSA exits to be improperly handled, resulting in a successful unfair/constructive dismissal claim by an employee, and a high financial cost to the employer. Some of my earlier articles would also be relevant for readers interested in this topic:

  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. Case Update: Can an employee bring an unfair dismissal claim after accepting a severance payment? (16 November 2017).
  4. What you need to know about the law on retrenchment of employees (22 January 2016).
  5. Handling employee dismissals properly under Malaysian law (13 January 2016).

In this article, we will review the Industrial Court case of Thanasegaran C Munusamy v. Vale Malaysia Minerals Sdn Bhd (Award No. 1647 of 2020), where the employee, Thanasegaran (the Employee) had signed an MSA, but then lodged an unfair dismissal claim against the employer, Vale Malaysia (the Company).

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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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