Here’s how workplaces must adopt fair and merit-based practices in diverse, multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore.
This article is brought to you by Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).
“I think he is too old to be in my team. I will just let him go.”
This is the real-life case of what an employer said to a former employee in dismissing the latter, despite the employee meeting his performance targets. Upon examination, TAFEP found two emails that pointed to relevant evidence of age discrimination, an excerpt of one of which is cited above.
Workplace fairness has greatly improved in Singapore, with fewer Singapore residents having experienced discrimination at the workplace (2022: 8.2%; 2021: 8.5%) and during their job search (2022: 23.8%; 2021: 25.8%). Nonetheless, each case of workplace discrimination in our diverse, multi-racial, multi-religious nation is one too many.
The enactment of the Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL) will thus send a strong signal that there is no place for workplace discrimination in Singapore. It will protect against the common and familiar forms of workplace discrimination. The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices will also be retained and enhanced to work in concert with the legislation, to provide against all forms of workplace discrimination.
The Government is expected to work closely with Singapore’s Tripartite Partners to implement the recommendations presented by the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness as legislation in 2024.
Excerpts from the recommendations are shared below, and the full set is available here:
Strengthen protection against workplace discrimination
1. Define discrimination as making an adverse employment decision because of any protected characteristic.
2. Prohibit workplace discrimination in respect of the following characteristics: (i) age, (ii) nationality, (iii) sex, marital status, pregnancy status, caregiving responsibilities, (iv) race, religion, language; (v) disability and mental health conditions ("protected characteristics").
3. Cover all stages of employment, i.e., the pre-employment (recruitment), in-employment (e.g., promotion, performance appraisal, training selection) and end-employment (e.g. dismissal) stages (“employment decisions”).
Provisions to support business/organisational needs and national objectives
4. Allow employers to consider a protected characteristic in employment decisions if it is a genuine and reasonable job requirement.
5. Exempt small firms (<25 employees) from the legislation for a start, to be reviewed in five years.
6. Allow religious organisations to make employment decisions based on religion and appropriate religious requirements (i.e., conformity with religious beliefs and practices).
Processes for resolving grievances and disputes while preserving workplace harmony
7. Require employers to put in place grievance handling processes. Employers should also protect the confidentiality of the identity of persons who report workplace discrimination and harassment, where possible.
8. TAFEP continues to serve as the first point of contact outside the firm for workers who experience discrimination.
9. Require compulsory mediation for workplace discrimination claims at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM) first, with adjudication at the Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT) as a last resort.
Ensuring fair outcomes through redress for victims of workplace discrimination, and appropriate penalties for breaches
10. At TADM mediation, the focus should be on educating employers on correct practices and mending the employment relationship where practicable, and not primarily on monetary compensation.
11. Provide for monetary compensation of up to S$5,000 for pre-employment claims; and, up to S$20,000 for non-union members and S$30,000 for union-assisted claims, for in-employment and end-employment claims, as with other employment claims today.
12. Empower the ECT to strike out frivolous or vexatious claims, and/or award costs against such claimants.
Real-life examples of workplace discrimination
In the past year, the proportion of employees who sought help upon facing discrimination at work nearly doubled to 35.3% in 2022 from 20.0% in 2021. More employees also reported that their firms had put in place formal procedures to manage workplace discrimination in 2022 (59.8%), up from 54.0% in 2021.
At TAFEP, each case received is thoroughly examined, and classified under three categories:
- Clear evidence of discrimination (as in the age example listed earlier),
- Possible discrimination, and,
- No clear evidence of discrimination.
Let’s ponder over examples of each type of case to identify markers that all of us should look out for.
Case 1 – Nationality (Clear evidence of discrimination)
In accordance with the Fair Consideration Framework, all employers submitting Employment Pass and S Pass applications must first advertise on MyCareersFuture and fairly consider all candidates.
However, TAFEP was informed that a company had pre-selected some foreign candidates, and did not intend to review any of the applications submitted through MyCareersFuture.
TAFEP’s investigations revealed that there were suitable candidates who applied through MyCareersFuture. TAFEP assessed that there was intent to discriminate and escalated the case to MOM for enforcement action.
Case 2 – Pregnancy status (Possible discrimination)
A jobseeker is offered a role as a finance officer. When undergoing a pre-employment medical check-up, she is found to be pregnant.
The company subsequently retracts the offer, citing that the nature of the job is not suitable for a pregnant employee, even though it is a desk-bound role. This could amount to discrimination.
Case 3 – Race (No clear evidence of discrimination)
A jobseeker approaches TAFEP saying that he did not get a particular job because his race was different from the hiring manager’s.
TAFEP asks the jobseeker if the company said or did anything during the selection process to lead him to think that there was race discrimination; the jobseeker says no, and that it is just his gut feel.
TAFEP assesses that the observation alone is not enough to suggest discrimination and that he is unlikely to have a basis for a claim.
How legislation is expected to enhance workplace fairness
The proposed WFL is expected to strengthen Singapore’s overall framework for workplace fairness in various ways.
First, it provides legal protection against workplace discrimination.
Second, it formalises mediation as our preferred approach to resolving disputes relating to workplace discrimination.
Third, it provides individuals with an additional avenue to seek redress for harm done due to workplace discrimination, apart from the existing remedies for wrongful dismissal.
Finally, with legislation, a wider range of enforcement levers is available, so that more calibrated action can be taken against those responsible for breaches of the legislation.
As cited by the Tripartite Committee, the majority of HR professionals they engaged in discussions prior to developing the WFL were hopeful about the proposed recommendations for the legislation promoting greater workplace fairness in Singapore.
There were also calls for training to help HR professionals familiarise themselves with the legislation and be equipped with the necessary mediation skills during dispute resolution.
Agreeing with this sentiment, the Committee shared in its report: “This legislation will be an important next step in enhancing our workplace fairness framework, but it is not a panacea.
"To strengthen workplace fairness, a co-ordinated and sustained effort by employers, employees, unions and the Government is required. Continued education of all employers and workers is also important."
Going forward, let us all look to maintain a workplace culture that is harmonious and not litigious, to preserve and protect an invaluable hallmark of Singapore’s employment landscape.
Familiarise yourself further with the upcoming WFL, and the two key areas where you can start by reviewing your organisation’s policies and practices by reading this article by TAFEP.
TAFEP provides information and resources to help employers and HR professionals keep abreast of HR best practices. Visit tafep.sg to find out more.
Lead image / 123RF