The case of Syed Ibrahim Syed Mohamed v Exxonmobil Exploration & Production Malaysia has shed some light on when an employee will be considered a ‘manual worker’ for the purposes of the 1955 Employment Act (the definition matters because there are a range of rights associated with being a manual worker).

The Appellants in this case were made up of five categories of employee:

  • Mechanical Technician
  • Electrical & Instrumental Technician
  • Production Technician
  • Crane Operator
  • Industrial Health Technician cum Radio Operator.

This disparate group brought a claim against their employer (Exxonmobil) for payment in respect of overtime, manual leave and work done on designated rest days. Exxonmobil disputed the claim on the basis that the employees were not manual workers as defined in the 1955 Act.

The Court of Appeal decided that the work performed by the employees in question was manual since despite the employees’ high degree of technical knowledge and training, they were ultimately still spending most of their time repairing articles or otherwise working with their hands.


It’s not always easy to determine when an employee is a manual worker. There is no one size fits all approach – the tests Colgate Palmolive and Exxonmobil are different. This leaves employers to wrestle with legal uncertainty. This case indicates that even if work is quite skilled and requires lengthy training, if it is performed with the hands, there is a reasonable chance that it will be considered ‘manual.’