SINGAPORE: Singapore will enshrine into law the current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 29).
Currently, there are “clear guidelines” on fair treatment from the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), he said. Most companies comply with TAFEP guidelines, and if a company “falls short”, TAFEP will counsel it, he added.
“If it still fails to get its act together, the Ministry of Manpower can impose administrative penalties, including restricting the company from hiring foreign workers This has generally worked quite well.”
Over the years, however, the Government has received “repeated requests” to toughen up TAFEP, he said.
In particular, the labour movement and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Members of Parliament have pushed for anti-discrimination laws that carry penalties.
The Government has held back “because we did not want the process to become legalistic or confrontational. It is better if disputes can be resolved amicably, through persuasion or mediation”, Mr Lee said.
However, after consulting the tripartite partners, the Government has decided to adopt the MPs’ suggestions, he said. “We will enshrine the TAFEP guidelines in law. This will give them more teeth, and expand the range of actions we can take.”
Mr Lee announced the establishment of the new laws as he spoke about the need to address Singaporean workers’ concerns on how they are being treated compared to work pass holders.
He noted that there is “growing restlessness over foreigners, particularly work pass holders” among middle-income Singaporeans.
“This unhappiness was already present before COVID-19, but the economic uncertainty has intensified it,” he said.
While most Singaporean understand the economic arguments for having work pass holders – such as how it attracts investment which in turn creates more jobs for locals in good times – there is “another set of arguments based on individual lived experiences, which are more personal and emotional”, he said.
These are about competition for jobs and opportunities at the workplace, he said, adding that employees have “valid questions” on whether their employer is hiring work pass holders at their expense, treating staff fairly when it comes to postings and promotions, and developing and preparing them to take on bigger responsibilities.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT NUMBER OF FOREIGNERS IN FINANCE, IT
Noting that “we often hear complaints about financial institutions and IT companies hiring too many foreigners”, Mr Lee said that there is a need to assure Singaporeans of fair treatment at the workplace.
“Both these sectors have a large share of work pass holders,” he said.
He said Singapore is a business hub where finance and IT companies perform regional and global functions, which require both local and foreign talent.
“Finance and IT are growing sectors, where the skills are in short supply,” he added.
However, he said companies in the sectors have also recruited “many Singaporeans” and groomed promising locals to take on senior and international positions.
“Had we not allowed them to import the Employment Passes they needed, the companies would not have come here, and Singaporeans would have had fewer opportunities.”
Mr Lee however noted that “not every company plays ball”.
“They hire from their own countries, using familiar links and old boys’ networks, rather than openly on merit and they give foreigners the jobs and opportunities, and only make token gestures with locals. That naturally causes problems.”
Government agencies deal with these transgressions firmly, he said, adding that interventions by agencies are “quiet, but effective”.
Mr Lee added that there is a need to assure Singaporeans that Employment Pass and S Pass holders are of the “right standard”.
He said that “a practical and reasonable indication of quality, the standard, is how much the employer is prepared to pay for the work pass holder”.
Therefore, to qualify for an Employment Pass or S Pass, there are salary cut-offs, which have risen in tandem with the rise in Singaporeans’ wages, Mr Lee said. Last year, the authorities raised the cut-offs twice, he noted.
For the financial sector, where salaries are higher, Singapore set a higher cut-off, he said.
Singapore will continue to tighten the criteria for Employment Passes and S Passes over time, although not suddenly or sharply, which would hurt businesses, but gradually and progressively, Mr Lee said.
“This will ensure that work pass holders come in where we most need them and we won’t be flooded with more than we can absorb, doing jobs for which Singaporeans are qualified and available.”
SIMILAR APPROACH TO DISPUTES OVER SALARIES, WRONGFUL DISMISSAL
While “writing TAFEP guidelines into the law is a major move” philosophically, as it signals that Singapore does not tolerate discrimination at workplaces, Mr Lee said that in practice, Singapore hopes to operate in a similar way as today, “except better”.
“We should still resolve workplace disputes informally and amicably, if at all possible. The legal redress should be a last recourse, one which is seldom needed," he said. Its existence will cause parties to work harder to settle the dispute, through conciliation and mediation,” he added.
The approach towards disputes over discrimination will be modelled on how companies deal with disputes over salaries or wrongful dismissal.
“In such disputes, conciliation and mediation have to be tried first. Only when those fail, does the matter go before an Employment Claims Tribunal, which will arbitrate and decide the case.”
A tribunal will similarly be created to deal with workplace discrimination, he said.
“This will protect workers against discrimination based on nationality. It will also prohibit other kinds of discrimination covered by TAFEP. Women will get better protection and discrimination based on age, race, religion, and disability will also be disallowed,” he said.
SOCIAL IMPACT OF HAVING MANY WORK PASS HOLDERS
Other than concerns over workplace discrimination, social frictions arise because culturally, work pass holders – some of whom eventually become permanent residents and naturalised citizens – are “different” from Singaporeans even if they are of Chinese, Malay or Indian race, Mr Lee said.
“In fact, sometimes frictions arise, precisely because they are racially similar to us. They look like us, yet they don’t act like us.
“Compared to the non-Singaporeans, we are ‘same same but different’. We need to ease the social frictions that arise from being ‘same same but different’.”
He said that “both sides need to make the effort”.
“Singaporeans must be open to living with and accepting others who are not exactly like us. Non-Singaporeans here must accept the ethos and norms of our society, and make the effort to fit in.”
Singapore is generally an egalitarian society, said Mr Lee, but some work pass holders and their families bring with them “social practices and class distinctions from their own countries”.
“These run counter to the informal and equal way Singaporeans interact with one another, and that causes frictions. Non-Singaporeans must understand how Singapore is, so that they can fit in better.”
He noted, however, that most work pass holders and their families fit in “quite well”.
After living here for some years, some speak Singlish and enjoy local food like sambal belachan and durian, he said.
Mr Lee acknowledged that concerns over work pass holders are a “very delicate subject” for a National Day Rally, but said he decided that he had to talk about it.
“We have to acknowledge the problem, so we can address Singaporeans’ legitimate concerns, and defuse resentments over foreigners. Only thus can Singapore remain open, and continue to grow and progress.”
BEING OUTWARD AND FORWARD-LOOKING
He added that the “reality” is that competition for Singaporean workers is not only from foreigners who are physically here.
“We are competing with people who are all over the world. COVID-19 has taught many companies that ‘working from home’ is just one step away from ‘working anywhere’.”
Employees no longer need to be all in the same place, needing only a good Internet connection, he said.
“Foreigners who are here in Singapore, they strengthen our team. They are our colleagues, and our neighbours and friends.”
During COVID-19, some of these foreigners have endured personal hardships, “perhaps been separated from families who are abroad, or stuck outside Singapore and unable to return home here”.
Acknowledging their contributions to Singapore, with some working on the front line, “shoulder-to-shoulder” with Singaporeans, he cautioned that “we must not turn our backs on them, and give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners”.
“It would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub. It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities. It would be disastrous for us, and most of all, it is not who we aspire to be,” he said.
Instead, Singapore must make it “crystal clear to the world” that it is determined to stay open, in order to earn a living, he said.
It is not just policies that have to be outward and forward-looking, but also mindsets and values – to look beyond our shores, to welcome ideas and talent and to accept competition and change.
“These values helped transform Singapore from a population of immigrants into a cosmopolitan and vibrant country. We must uphold them, as we continue to build our home and nation.”