TRIPARTISM is the bedrock of Singapore’s harmonious labour relations, promoting practices that enable a fair, responsible and progressive workplace culture. Yet every instance of workplace discrimination shows that we can do better. The proposed workplace fairness legislation (WFL) sends a strong signal that workplace discrimination will not be tolerated.
The Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) supports the proposals, which are expected to be passed into law by 2024. As a member of the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness, SNEF has provided employers’ perspectives, ensuring the recommendations are practical and balanced.
The WFL balances flexibility for employers with proportional redress for workplace discrimination, without creating a litigious workplace culture.
However, for the law to be effective, it needs the support of both employers and employees. Employers should foster a workplace culture that values openness, trust and communication; and workplace harmony is only achievable when every employee embodies these values.
No need to fear
The WFL’s requirements will be achievable by most employers. Businesses can take the chance to enhance their human resource (HR) capabilities, review their employment practices and set up the necessary processes to strengthen protections against workplace discrimination.
SNEF will support employers to put in place the necessary HR policies, toolkits and playbooks.
Companies need not be too worried about running afoul of the law. Only egregious companies that discriminate will be affected. And when done right, everyone benefits from a harmonious workplace culture with responsible practices.
The proposed WFL is also practical in scope, prohibiting discrimination based on five protected characteristics. Some have asked for it to go beyond these five. However, this focus is practical given that since 2018, 95 per cent of the 300-odd workplace complaints received each year are related to these protected characteristics.
In any case, the WFL is in addition to the existing Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which will continue to protect against all forms of workplace discrimination.
Employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, will need the time and support of employees to develop the required workplace culture. SNEF thus supports the proposal to exempt companies with fewer than 25 employees, which will get a five-year exemption to build their capabilities once the WFL is legislated.
A chance to re-examine practices
To comply with the WFL, companies must develop processes for fair recruitment. To do so, they can consult SNEF’s advisory services and leverage training opportunities.
This includes training staff who write job advertisements and conduct interviews, with reference to the protected characteristics.
It should be noted that a protected characteristic can be brought up in hiring if it is a genuine and reasonable job requirement – for instance, airlines can require pilots to be under the age of 65, in compliance with regulations.
The WFL will also allow employers to favour persons with disabilities and seniors over other groups when hiring, if they fulfil the job requirements. Diversity brings a broader range of skill sets, experiences and perspectives to workplaces, and can boost productivity growth.
It is laudable that Singapore seeks to balance the interests of both employees and companies, and tries not to place undue burden on companies.
For example, instead of legislating the right for reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities – on top of protection against workplace discrimination – Singapore adopts a more enabling approach, which includes providing support to companies that are keen to employ such workers. This results in better outcomes for workplace disability inclusion.
For their part, companies must invest in setting up a proper grievance-handling process. This will enable disputes to be resolved quickly and amicably at the company level.
A 2021 Ministry of Manpower survey noted that among employees who sought help for discrimination, nearly 80 per cent did so within their companies. Employers are encouraged to refer to the existing Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling to implement the necessary processes.
Companies are also encouraged to work with tripartite partners to resolve issues. Unions will continue to support their members through dispute resolution. SNEF will assist and represent our member companies in disputes.
It is only if disputes cannot be resolved at the company level that they are then escalated, entering a compulsory mediation with the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management.
If mediation fails, cases will be referred to the Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT) for adjudication. To help preserve a harmonious and non-litigious workplace culture, adjudication should be the last resort.
Employers are concerned that the number of claims will increase once the WFL comes into force. However, this concern is mitigated by the design of the process, as the claimant has to first substantiate their claim of discrimination.
Employers can be assured that there will be safeguards against frivolous or vexatious claims. Under the proposed WFL, the ECT is empowered to strike out such claims and/or award costs to be paid by the unsuccessful claimant.
Responsible employment practices have upheld harmonious workplaces. The WFL will complement such efforts by promoting respect, fairness and equity at workplaces.
Employers themselves will benefit from a diverse workforce, to present a stronger employee value proposition – which supports business outcomes for sustainable businesses.
Edwin Ng is honorary secretary and Kohe Hasan is council member of the Singapore National Employers Federation
This is an opinion-ed published in the Business Times on 27 Jul.