Fired over an extended overseas trip? Singapore’s High Court favours employer

Court cites contract's 'anticipatory breach' despite worker's family emergency

Fired over an extended overseas trip? Singapore’s High Court favours employer

The High Court of Singapore recently dealt with a case involving the termination of an employment contract between an international school and one of its school counsellors.

The court had to determine whether the termination was justified based on the worker's alleged anticipatory breach of the employment contract.

The case highlighted the challenges faced by both employers and employees in navigating the uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of clear communication and adherence to contractual obligations.

Background of the case

The worker, an Irish citizen, was employed by the international school in Singapore as a school counsellor under a 3-year fixed-term employment contract from 1 August 2020. As part of the contract benefits, the worker's husband and their two children moved to Singapore under employment and dependant passes arranged by the employer.

The family enjoyed medical insurance coverage paid by the employer, and the children attended the school with their tuition fees fully waived.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures imposed by the government, the employer had informed its staff that travel during the summer vacation in 2021 (June to 18 August) was going to be restrictive and uncertain.

Entry approval may be required to re-enter Singapore, and a 14-day stay-home notice or quarantine may be imposed upon their return. The school headmaster had expressly stated in a letter dated 16 March 2021 that "all staff are (sic) required to be at College on the first day back of the new academic year in August (with quarantine completed if applicable)".

Despite these guidelines, the worker left Singapore for Ireland on 28 June 2021 for the summer vacation. Before she could return to Singapore for the start of the new academic year on 18 August 2021, she received an emailed letter, dated 5 August 2021, notifying her that her employment had been terminated.

The letter stated that the worker had confirmed to her line manager that she did not intend to return to Singapore until January 2022, which was deemed a breach of contract.

The worker commenced legal action against the employer for wrongful termination of her employment contract. The employer argued that the termination was justified based on the worker's anticipatory breach of the contract.

The disputed conversation between parties

Central to the case was a video call between the worker and her line manager on 4 August 2021. The content of this conversation was disputed by both parties.

The worker's line manager testified that during the call, the worker mentioned three key points:

  • The worker's husband was going to have an operation in Ireland;
  • The worker would not be back until January 2022; and
  • The worker suggested that she could do some remote work.

The worker's line manager stated that she had emphasised the employer's position that the worker needed to return to Singapore in August 2021, as the employer would not accept any later return date.

According to the worker's line manager, the worker simply responded, "Well, I won't be back until January next year".

The worker, however, denied having said that she would only return in January 2022. She claimed that she had informed her line manager that her husband required further tests and X-rays, which would take a week or two to complete, meaning they would have to stay in Ireland beyond the start of the school term for a few days.

The worker suggested working remotely from Ireland during this period.

The court’s assessment

In assessing the evidence, the court found the worker's arguments unpersuasive. The court noted that if the worker had not actually said she would return only in January 2022, she should have corrected the misperception at the first opportunity with the relevant people involved.

It said that the worker had two separate chances to clarify her position - once when she received the termination email and again when she received a message from her line manager - but she did not attempt to do so.

The court also found inconsistencies in the worker's evidence regarding the duration of her intended stay in Ireland. While the worker claimed she would only need to stay for an additional week or two, her testimony indicated that her husband might require an operation, which would have needed a longer period given the healthcare situation in Ireland at the time.

The court noted that the worker failed to provide key documents, such as her husband's medical appointment schedule, which could have substantiated her claims.

Furthermore, the court observed that the worker's intention to return to Singapore in August 2021 was not consistent with other objective evidence, such as the purchase of pet rabbits for her children in Ireland.

As the court noted:

"One does not buy pet rabbits in Ireland during a temporary stay of less than two months. That is more consistent with the [employer's] case that the [worker] was intending to remain in Ireland for an extended period."

The court's decision

Ultimately, the court found that on a balance of probabilities, the worker had informed her line manager that she would only return to Singapore in January 2022. This constituted an anticipatory breach of the employment contract, which stated:

"The Teacher shall be available to perform his or her Professional Duties at such time and places as the College may reasonably require during the School Year."

The court acknowledged the worker's well-intentioned decision to return to Ireland for her husband's medical condition but concluded that the employer was justified in terminating the employment contract based on the anticipatory breach.

"Although I do not doubt nor fault the [worker's] well-intentioned decision to return to Ireland for her husband's medical condition, the [employer] was justified in terminating the [worker's] employment contract based on her anticipatory breach," the court said.

The court further emphasised the significance of the worker's absence, stating:

"The [worker] would not have been able to report to work in person not just by the start of the school term, but also for a substantial period (five months) after the commencement of term."

In dismissing the worker's claim, the court also highlighted the credibility of the witnesses:

"I assess [the worker's line manager] to be a forthright witness who, though formerly employed by the [employer], did not appear to lean in their favour and she gave her testimony with no garnishing. I have no hesitation accepting her evidence to be both clear and truthful. The [worker], on the other hand, seemed more dismissive of the [employer] than seriously proving her case."

The case served as a reminder of the need for both employers and their workers to maintain open lines of communication and seek mutually beneficial solutions, even in the face of personal hardships and unprecedented circumstances.

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