Keep workplace fairness law tight, tripartite committee says in response to feedback on expanding scope
The committee received feedback suggesting that sexual orientation, gender identity and criminal history be included in the list of protected characteristics.
SINGAPORE: The proposed law against workplace discrimination should be "tightly scoped" for a start, the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness recommended, after it received feedback on expanding the list of protected characteristics.
Age and race were among the recommended protected characteristics announced in February. During public consultations, some suggested that sexual orientation, gender identity, criminal history and other characteristics should be protected as well.
"Fundamental societal norms have to be taken into consideration," Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said at a press briefing on Friday (Aug 4).
He pointed out that around 95 per cent of discrimination complaints are related to the protected categories, which are:
- Sex, marital status, pregnancy status and caregiving responsibilities
- Race, religion and language
- Disability and mental health conditions
Workers are protected from all forms of workplace discrimination under guidelines by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), even if they are not mentioned in the legislation, the report said.
"As the legislation is a significant step, the committee recommends keeping it tightly scoped to protect against the more common and familiar forms of discrimination, which support our key social and economic objectives," it said.
After taking public feedback into account, the Tripartite Committee’s final report contains 22 recommendations, up from 20 in the interim report.
The government accepted all recommendations, according to a joint press release by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF).
"This is a significant milestone in our journey to building a fairer and a more harmonious workplace, and this will send a strong signal that there's no place for workplace discrimination in Singapore," Dr Tan said.
Formed in July 2021, the Tripartite Committee is chaired by Dr Tan, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and SNEF president Robert Yap.
The proposed law will cover 75 per cent of all employees since there are exemptions for companies with fewer than 25 employees. Compulsory mediation will be the first step in resolving disputes, and adjudication at the Employment Claims Tribunal will be the "last resort", the report said.
Dr Robert Yap said employers would prefer no law because it adds rigidity and can impede business growth.
"But we understand that there is a need to take appropriate actions against errant employers to nip workplace discrimination in the bud," he said.
Mr Ng said the legislation is an important step toward a workplace that is fairer as it acts as deterrence against bad practices.
"Hopefully, over the next five, 10 years people don't really know the details of the legislation because the workplace is fair.
"If we have to use legislation to enforce, then we may not have that amicable a workplace," he said.
GREATER CLARITY ON DEFINITIONS
In response to requests for greater clarity on the definitions of protected characteristics, the committee recommended definitions for disability, mental health conditions, pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities.
The definition of disability will be aligned with what is used in Singapore’s Enabling Masterplan.
It will include persons with autism and those who have intellectual, physical or sensory disabilities that have a substantial impact on the ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
The committee recommended that the definition of mental health conditions covers more serious forms of diagnosed mental disorders, usually associated with distress or impairment in important areas of functioning.
Women who are pregnant, on statutory maternity leave or breastfeeding will be protected under the law.
Those who say they plan to have children will also be protected. For example, it could be considered discrimination if an employee is left out of a talent development scheme because she wants to start a family soon.
People with caregiving responsibilities will refer to anyone who provides care for a family member in need, even if they live in separate households.
HARASSMENT, INDIRECT DISCRIMINATION
Regarding suggestions to include workplace harassment in the legislation, the tripartite committee's report noted that there are existing legal protections. Victims can make a police report.
Harassment victims can seek advice from TAFEP, which will ask the employer to carry out a proper, independent investigation.
The legislation will also not prohibit indirect discrimination, where an apparently neutral policy is disadvantageous to people with a protected characteristic.
For example, a company may require a pre-employment test for all workers, but older workers tend to perform badly on it. This may be seen as indirect discrimination.
"If indirect discrimination was included in legislation, such grey situations could be frequently litigated and lead to considerable uncertainty for employers and employees," the report said.
TAFEP will take up such cases and work toward a resolution.
The committee accepted feedback suggesting that stronger measures be allowed when TAFEP's guidelines are flouted. Besides work pass suspension, the MOM can publicly name employers involved in egregious discrimination disputes on a case-by-case basis.
Instead of legislating the requirement to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities, the committee recommended issuing a tripartite advisory.
"The Committee’s view is that this may result in an overly rigid approach that risks creating a more litigious workplace, and could inadvertently affect the employability of those we seek to support.
"In other jurisdictions, disability discrimination and reasonable accommodations are heavily litigated areas," the report said.
MOM previously said it aims for the draft legislation to be ready in the second half of 2024, around three years after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during his 2021 National Day Rally speech that the TAFEP guidelines would be written into law.
The full report by the Tripartite Committee can be found online.