In Singapore's Parliament yesterday (4 November), a number of HR-relevant issues were discussed by MP Saktiandi Supaat, MP Desmond Choo, and Minister of State for Manpower, Zaqy Mohamad. These included topics such as localisation targets for workforces, age discrimination, EP criteria, and more.

We've summarised snippets of the conversation relevant for HR leaders below.

For an adjournment motion, “Enhancing the role of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) to tackle workplace and job discrimination", MP Saktiandi Supaat shared ideas on fighting age discrimination and "localising jobs". 

Suggestion 1: Companies to set localisation targets for workforce "I would suggest that companies set localisation targets for their workforce, in consultation with tripartite partners. Localisation targets meaning proportion of workforce that is local or setting a target for overall local proportion."

Suggestion 2: Expanding existing Capability Transfer Programme (CTP) to support transfer of capabilities from foreign employees currently already employed in Singapore "Can we consider expanding CTP to support transfer of capabilities from foreign employees currently “already employed” in Singapore to local workers, with the eventual aim of localising jobs, working in tandem with the localisation targets I had mentioned earlier."

Suggestion 3: Employment Pass eligibility criteria ought to be regularly updated and tightened "For example, the current minimum salary of $3,600 for young graduates could be too low. At this wage level, many Singaporeans should be given the jobs."

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He was joined by MP Desmond Choo, Assistant Secretary-General, NTUC, who noted age discrimination or ageism is an issue to watch closely, and also shared three suggestions on tackling the various forms of age discrimination. 

Suggestion 1: For the egregious cases where TAFEP and MOM have clear evidence of errant practices, would the Ministry consider publicly naming the companies? "Perhaps MOM can publish the egregious ones and publicly track them for a certain period of time. Companies must also know that while we offer second chances, we will also not hesitate to take tougher measures if you are recalcitrant."

Suggestion 2: A longitudinal analysis of companies' practices to surface discriminatory hiring or employment practices "Would the Ministry consider conducting such studies? Such studies can also show up companies that had consistently favoured foreign workers over local talent. The Labour Movement will be keen to support such a move."

Suggestion 3: Correct the unintended ageism at the workplace "We cannot legislate away the myths but we can educate. And that is where improving the capabilities of our HR professionals and employers are paramount. Building upon the tripartite framework is perhaps the most effective way to do so."

Minister of State for Manpower, Zaqy Mohamad, thanked both the MPs and responded at length to their suggestions, affirming: "Let me be clear. Workplace discrimination, even in small pockets, is simply not acceptable. We must do everything we can to stamp it out."

He cited MOM and the tripartite partners' multi-pronged approach that: actively promotes fair and progressive workplaces, stays vigilant to detect and investigate all forms of workplace discrimination, and acts firmly against errant employers while helping them improve.

He then went on to respond comprehensively to the various suggestions put forward:

1. Certifying age-inclusive companies The Tripartite Standard on Age-Friendly Workplace Practices already does so, wherein it measures not using age as a selection criterion for recruitment, and designing jobs and workplaces to be age-friendly.

2. Workplace discrimination He noted that the Guidelines are "unambiguous on workplace discrimination", i.e. employers should "recruit and select employees on the basis of merit." He clarified: "To be clear, hiring a younger worker in itself may not reflect discrimination. The key is to consider employees based on merit, without discriminating on any measure including age, race, religion, gender, marital status, family responsibilities and disability."

3. The role of TAFEP "TAFEP is not all carrots and no stick," Minister Zaqy affirmed, stating that over the last three years, MOM has taken enforcement action against about 900 errant employers for infringements. He cited the example of marine engineering company, which had its work pass privileges curtailed, after investigations found it had rejected 20% of job applicants for no reason other than age.

4. Fair consideration to Singaporean jobseekers Supporting the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), employers that treat job advertisements as a “paper exercise” have been uncovered and taken to task. "In fact, MOM and TAFEP have been improving the methods to detect and scrutinise suspicious employers," he revealed.

"MOM also proactively identifies firms with workforce profiles that suggest possible discrimination against Singaporeans, such as having an exceptionally high share of foreign PMETs compared to their industry peers, extremely high concentration of a single foreign nationality."

Since 2016, about 600 firms across all sectors have been placed on this Watchlist. A total of 2,300 EP applications have been rejected or withheld by MOM, or withdrawn by employers. In addition, employers on the FCF Watchlist have hired more than 3,800 Singaporean PMETs to date.

While MOM clamps down on their EP applications, TAFEP also engages the employers one-on-one to help them improve their HR practices and support local hiring. Of the 600 firms, TAFEP has helped 260 firms to improve and exit the Watchlist so far.

He affirmed on these actions taken: "Based on our experience, curtailing work privileges hits businesses where it hurts the most, as it affects their ability to hire.

"We also deal firmly with those who try to play games with us. For example, we have found employers on the Watchlist who use related entities to apply for EPs to bypass our controls. For such cases, we curtailed the work pass privileges of ALL the related entities."

5. Employment Pass policy Minister Zaqy shared that MOM regularly reviews the EP salary criteria, taking reference from local PMET salaries at similar experience and seniority, and the last update was done in 2017.

"To clarify, the minimum salary requirement of $3,600 applies to young graduates with good qualifications. An experienced EP holder in their mid-40s would need to earn much more to qualify, comparable to a similarly experienced local PMET," he added.

6. Outcomes of this multi-pronged approach

Minister Zaqy went on to conclude his response by sharing a number of data points on the topics discussed:

Older worker employment: More older Singaporeans are employed today than ever before (over 500,000 today, compared to about 270,000 ten years ago). The unemployment rate for workers aged 50 and above has also been consistently lower than the overall rate. "We expect even more older workers to be employed when the Retirement and Re-Employment Ages are raised to 65 and 70 by 2030," he said.

Nationality-based discrimination: Presently, locals continue to hold the majority of jobs that companies can also hire EPs for. In most sectors, locals hold around three in four of such jobs, except for infocomm where the local share is about two-thirds. These ratios have held up in the last few years even as the workforce expanded.

"I should add that our strong stance against favouring foreigners has not gone unnoticed," he added, citing the recent Global Competitiveness Ranking by WEF, where Singapore was ranked 93rd in terms of ease of hiring foreign labour.

"In other words, business leaders who are able to compare foreign manpower regimes in different countries, see far more liberal regimes outside Singapore."

However, he also presented the other side to this: "As an international business hub, such perceptions carry some cost. If leading global companies think twice about investing in Singapore or rethink their future plans for Singapore, the result could be fewer good jobs for Singaporeans."

Localisation and capability transfer: He noted that MOM supports MP Saktiandi call on businesses to step up in localising their workforce to support Singapore’s competitiveness and workforce sustainability.

Citing the Capability Transfer Programme (CTP), he said since its start on 2017, more than 120 companies and 800 local workers are expected to benefit from CTP-supported projects.

He added: "We will study Mr Saktiandi’s suggestion to expand the CTP, including how it can support companies that set localisation targets."

In conclusion, he welcomed more initiatives from the labour movement to tackle workplace discrimination of all forms, working with employers and workers. "We need all hands on deck, #everyworkermatters," he affirmed.

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