Tripartite committee recommends protection against age, sex and race biases as part of workplace fairness law
These are among five categories of characteristics - including nationality, religion and disabilities - identified in proposals for new anti-discrimination workplace legislation.
SINGAPORE: A Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness on Monday (Feb 13) released an interim report containing 20 recommendations for anti-discrimination workplace legislation.
These include stronger protections, a wider range of enforcement tools and prohibiting retaliation by employers.
If accepted by the Government, the new law will be introduced on top of current guidelines against discrimination by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).
The interim report comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his 2021 National Day Rally speech that the Government intends to write these TAFEP guidelines into law.
The Tripartite Committee, convened in July 2021, is chaired by Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, labour chief Ng Chee Meng and the Singapore National Employers Federation's (SNEF) president Robert Yap.
According to a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) survey, the proportion of job seekers who reported that they experienced discrimination fell from 43 per cent in 2018 to 25 per cent in 2021.
The proportion of employees who said that they had experienced workplace discrimination was 8 per cent in 2021.
"Nonetheless, we want to continue to work hard to tackle workplace discrimination," Dr Tan said at a press briefing.
"We want to do more to ensure that we have a strong and robust system in place to uphold workplace fairness," he added.
"It's important for us to send a strong signal that we have zero tolerance for any form of workplace discrimination."
Dr Tan said a Bill could be proposed in Parliament in 2024.
The Tripartite Committee recommended that five categories of characteristics be protected under a law for workplace fairness.
The categories are:
- Sex, marital status, pregnancy status and caregiving responsibilities
- Race, religion and language
- Disability and mental health conditions
These were selected because the protection of these characteristics supports Singapore’s social and economic objectives, according to a joint press release from MOM, SNEF and the National Trades Union Congress.
Ninety-five per cent of discrimination complaints also fall into these categories.
Between 2018 and 2021, MOM and TAFEP received 328 complaints, of which 189 were discrimination based on nationality, 73 were related to age and 46 were linked to sex. There were also 34 complaints of discrimination due to race or language.
The list of protected characteristics is not closed and could expand to include other categories in future.
Asked why sexual orientation was not included, Dr Tan said that while all forms of workplace discrimination would not be tolerated, there was a need to be "judicious" about which aspects to include in legislation.
He said the five categories were "basic building blocks" for a start, with the Government "prepared to consider" including other forms of discrimination in the legislation.
Dr Yap of SNEF agreed that other characteristics could be added on in future.
The Tripartite Committee also recommended that the workplace fairness law prohibit the use of words or phrases in job advertisements that indicate a preference, based on the protected characteristics.
For example, a job advertisement should include requirements for proficiency in a language rather than a preference for a certain race.
EXEMPTIONS FOR SMALLER FIRMS, RELIGIOUS ORGANISATIONS
Companies with fewer than 25 employees should be exempted from the legislation for five years, the committee said.
This is to give smaller firms time to understand the law and implement the requirements.
"Micro- and small employers like neighbourhood shops, start-ups and so on may not have the manpower and resources to put in place formal policies and processes to comply with the legislation," Dr Yap said.
Employees can still file complaints based on TAFEP guidelines, before the law takes effect for these smaller companies.
And the legislation will still cover 75 per cent of all employees, said the committee.
Religious organisations should also be allowed to consider religion as a job requirement, while religion-affiliated organisations such as charities, hospitals and schools should only take religion into account for specific roles, the committee said.
Additionally, if there is a genuine and reasonable requirement to consider a protected characteristic when making an employment decision, employers should be allowed to do so.
For example, a wellness establishment may require its therapists to be female to give massages and spa treatments to female customers.
The committee also recommended that the law allow employers to favour persons with disabilities and seniors aged 55 and above, as long as they meet baseline job requirements.
This means allowing employers to hire people from those groups, even if there are other equally or more qualified candidates.
Inclusive policies such as expanding recruitment efforts to attract more female candidates should be acceptable as well, the committee said, as long as job seekers and employees are treated fairly and objectively.
FOCUS ON MEDIATION
Even after the law is formalised, most disputes are expected to be settled through mediation at the Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management, to "preserve workplace harmony and a non-litigious workplace culture", said the Tripartite Committee.
"In addition, seeking an amicable settlement supports the preservation of the employment relationship in cases where it is still practicable," it added.
Mediation is fast and cheap, and 80 per cent of claims have been settled through this dispute resolution process, said the committee.
TAFEP and the unions should continue to advise and assist workers who experience discrimination, the Tripartite Committee suggested.
If mediation fails and a claim proceeds to the Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT), the committee recommended that the ECT be allowed to order compensation of up to S$30,000.
The amount varies depending on when the claim is made - with S$5,000 being the upper limit for pre-employment claims - and S$20,000 for non-union members making claims during or at the end of employment.
The ECT should also be allowed to strike out frivolous claims and order the unsuccessful claimant to pay up to S$5,000 to the company, said the committee.
TAFEP should also advise claimants on whether the case is strong before it proceeds to the ECT.
For employers that breach the law, the consequences should vary based on the severity, said the committee, suggesting a range of penalties from corrective orders to work pass curtailment.
Mr Ng said the National Trades Union Congress is happy that the proposed law will be a voice for the workers, strengthening protection over more areas and providing more enforcement levers.
"We believe this will serve as an effective deterrent against any errant employers," he added.
The full list of recommendations from the Tripartite Committee's interim report can be found at go.gov.sg/wfl.
A one-month public consultation period will take place next, and a final report is expected to be ready later this year.