SINGAPORE: While Singapore agrees with the intent of a new global treaty against violence and harassment in the workplace, it abstained from voting during a United Nations agency’s annual conference in June due to “concerns about overreach”, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Monday (Aug 5).
Speaking in Parliament, Mrs Teo referred to how the new convention, which has since been adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), proposed measures such as including domestic violence in workplace risk assessments.
“This would expand workplace safety and health well beyond the workplace remit,” she said, in response to parliamentary questions about why Singapore abstained from voting.
Singapore was one of the six governments — along with Russia, El Salvador, Malaysia, Paraguay and Kyrgyzstan — to abstain when the vote was held during the ILO’s annual conference of governments, employers groups and workers on Jun 21.
When asked by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong on how the Singapore delegation voted, Mrs Teo said the Singapore National Employers Federation “had grave concerns” and voted against the treaty.
The National Trades Union Congress, which represented workers, voted “in favour of the convention as a mark of solidarity for the spirit behind it, knowing full well that the Government was going to vote to abstain from it”.
Mrs Teo added that Singapore takes its treaty obligations seriously, and has a longstanding policy to “only consider adopting or ratifying conventions which are in Singapore’s interests, and with which (its) laws and policies can fully comply”.
“Where we have doubts, we will continue to study the terms of the convention,” she said.
“In the meantime, we will make improvements to our policies and measures that are aligned with the spirit of the convention, if they also meet our objectives.”
She cited the ILO’s Occupational Safety and Health Convention as an example. Prior to ratifying the international agreement in June, Singapore had taken steps to strengthen measures and successfully reduced its workplace fatality rates, said Mrs Teo.
While Singapore voted to abstain from the new treaty, it voted in favour of a non-legally binding ILO recommendation accompanying the convention “as it is aligned with (Singapore’s) commitment to eliminate workplace violence and harassment”.
“We continue to partner the ILO to promote decent work and have put in place practical measures to eliminate workplace violence and harassment,” said Mrs Teo.
This includes “practical measures” that are already in place, such as how employers must meet the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices which covers grievance handling.
Among other things, employers are required to respond promptly to affected persons and conduct proper investigations into complaints.
Data is also collected through complaints that the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) receives every year, said Mrs Teo.
For now, only “a very small percentage” of these complaints are related to workplace harassment.
“This is not to trivialise the concerns of those who did file the complaints, but in general, we do not have a pervasive issue. It is quite specific to certain employers and certain types of work arrangements. Those we will follow up,” she said.
TAFEP will refer cases to government agencies and partners, including the police and the courts, where appropriate.
Egregious cases, such as outrage of modesty are punishable offences under the Penal Code or can be taken up under the Protection from Harassment Act, said the minister.