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In Parliament: Labour Members of Parliament on women’s employment and workers’ safety and protection

Five Labour Movement representatives championed workers’ interests during the 8 and 9 May Parliamentary sessions.

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By Nicolette Yeo 09 May 2023
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Singapore’s female labour force participation rate made good progress in the past five years, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.

The participation rate for women aged 25 to 64 has increased to 78.6 per cent in 2021, up from 74.8 per cent in 2018.

He was speaking in Parliament on 8 May 2023 in response to NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Desmond Choo’s query on the female labour force participation rate in the last five years.

Dr Tan said the Manpower Ministry (MOM) will employ three strategies to bolster the rate.

The first strategy is to further encourage the adoption of Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs).

More employers are now providing FWAs
about 91 per cent offered at least one formal FWA in 2021, significantly higher than 53 per cent in 2018.

Dr Tan also gave an update on the ongoing tripartite efforts to boost FWA adoption.

He elaborated: “Tripartite partners will give this a further push by introducing a set of Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs by 2024. The guidelines aim to make requesting for FWAs a workplace norm by requiring employers to put in place proper processes to fairly consider and respond to employees’ requests for FWAs.

“We will also continue to support employers with training and tools to implement FWAs effectively and sustainably. We are heartened that some employers, HR professionals and employees have already come together to co-create FWA tools through the Alliance for Action on Work-Life Harmony.”

Dr Tan shared that the second strategy is to help women who have taken career breaks to return to work.

Over the last three years, Workforce Singapore (WSG) and NTUC’s e2i (Employment and Employability Institute) have placed over 83,000 women into jobs. This represents around 47 per cent of all jobseekers placed by both organisations and is similar to the proportion of women in the labour force.

The manpower minister suggested that women returners tap on WSG’s programmes and services, such as the new herCareer initiative, which includes employment facilitation programmes and services and walk-in interviews with prospective employers.

The third strategy is to continue helping working women manage caregiving responsibilities.

To do so, Dr Tan shared that full-day preschool capacity has doubled to over 200,000 places since 2012 while means-tested preschool subsidies have been increased. There is also additional tax relief for working mothers and expanded caregiving options for elderly family members.

Efforts are also underway to ensure that all workers, including women, are fairly treated at the workplace through the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness’ interim report recommendations.


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Helping vulnerable women re-enter and remain in the workforce

The Parliamentary sitting on 8 May 2023 also saw the House debate the Maintenance Enforcement Process (MEP) enhancements under the Family Justice Reform Bill. The bill has since been passed.

NTUC U Women and Family (U WAF) Director Yeo Wan Ling supported the bill. She called on the Government to make the MEP simpler and more cost-effective, noting that the process is now online.

Ms Yeo stressed the importance for women facing divorce to have a support network to become financially independent and manage caregiving responsibilities, citing U WAF’s efforts in helping women return to work.

She also enquired about the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s women returner programmes as part of the MEP. She also asked if the Labour Movement could be a key programme partner.

Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling acknowledged U WAF’s efforts to help single mothers and divorcees and welcomed partnerships with the NTUC unit to further enable single or divorced parents.

Meanwhile, the Labour Member of Parliament appealed to the Singapore community to help these women remain employed.

Ms Yeo said: “Companies must redesign their jobs such that Flexible Work Arrangements become a business and social norm.

“The Family Courts can consider, in addition to specifying clinical and therapeutic intervention sessions, job and upskilling workshops to ensure that women have access to the resources and support they need to rebuild their lives.

“We must equip our women with the means to long-term financial stability, a peace of mind in managing their caregiving responsibilities, and the choice to return to the workforce.”

NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong also rose in support of the bill. He made several suggestions on the MEP enhancements, setting an age limit for judicial interviews of children and strengthening the institution of marriage.

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Advancing healthcare workers’ welfare

The Parliamentary sitting on 9 May 2023 saw NTUC Vice-President Abdul Samad Abdul Wahab speak up during the Private Members Motion on Supporting Healthcare.

Acknowledging the work done by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in supporting public healthcare workers, he called for a review of the long working hours that may prevent workers from having sufficient rest.

He said: “I appeal to the ministry to have a team to observe independently the shift rosters that healthcare workers are assigned. Let us not wait until an unforeseen incident happens before we start to investigate.

“We need to ensure that shift rosters pay close attention to rest time in between as we need physically alert workers at all times to attend to patients and supporting doctors.”

Citing his daughter’s local hospital internship experience, where she did not receive an allowance, Mr Samad also urged the ministry to look at giving allowances to interns.

He elaborated: “I would like to ask if MOH is aware of such situations whereby interns are not compensated for their labour.

“Let us not paint internships like another day at school. Academic and work experiences are not and never will be the same.

“I don’t think it will cripple the hospitals or MOH’s finances to grant an allowance to these students as they are working in the real world, not in school.”

Noting that there will be more healthcare job opportunities with more restructured hospitals being built, Mr Samad asked if our nation was ready for the pipeline of Singaporeans wanting to work in healthcare, especially young workers. He also enquired about the plans to ensure a Singaporean core of healthcare workers.

The Nominated Labour Member of Parliament also called for a review of polyclinic employees’ working conditions.

He said: “The stress that they face at work is equivalent to those working at hospitals. Based on my interactions, some have highlighted that they hope polyclinics operate strictly on appointments, as they still see many walk-ins even when appointments are already full. This really stretches them and even doctors.

“Separately, there are those that hope that polyclinic operations can soon be reduced to a five-day work week upon review of operating hours.”

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Tackling worker abuse and harassment

Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam revealed that more security officers were abused or harassed in the first three months of 2023 compared to the same period from 2018 to 2021.

On average, there were about 23 abuse or harassment cases reported for each month of 2023, higher than the 13 reported cases per month between 2018 and 2021.

Mr Shanmugam was responding to NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong’s 8 May 2023 Parliamentary questions on the number of abuse cases against security officers in the first four months of 2023; whether there has been an increase in the number of cases over the past five years; how MHA intends to send a strong message that such acts are unacceptable.

He stressed that MHA takes a very serious view of security officer abuse and harassment, adding that the Private Security Industry Act was amended in October 2021 with higher penalties for security officer abuse compared to acts committed against members of the public.

The Act’s enhancements took effect on May 2022.

Mr Shanmugam said: “Cases of harassment and abuse against security officers will continue to be treated seriously, and the police will investigate egregious cases.

“MHA will also work with our tripartite partners to reinforce the message that security officers should be treated with respect and the abuse of security officers will not be condoned. Perpetrators must know that security officers have both the protection of the law and the fullest support of the industry.”

He added that security officers are now more cognisant of the protection available to them. This has encouraged officers, employers and the Union of Security Employees to be more forthcoming in reporting abuse and harassment cases.

Harassment of education workers was another issue raised.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore’s schools and institutes of higher learning have clear policies to manage incidents even though teaching staff harassment is uncommon.

The policies include escalation procedures and measures to protect workers and convey that such behaviour is unacceptable.

In extreme cases where workers feel harassed or threatened, such measures include getting police assistance and using legal levers such as the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Affected staff can also turn to support structures such as counselling.

Mr Chan was responding to NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay’s query on whether the Ministry of Education has a specific policy and programmes to prevent harassment by students and parents on teaching staff across all schools and tertiary institutions, including Special Education (SPED) schools.

Mr Chan added that IHL students undergo compulsory respectful behaviour and anti-harassment modules. Students are therefore expected to abide by the respective IHL’s code of conduct, which regards disrespectful behaviour and harassment as disciplinary offences.

SPED schools have standard operating procedures aligned to the HR policies of their parent Social Services Agency (SSA) to guide staff in managing harassment cases. Meanwhile, SSA-run SPED schools also have processes to support teachers facing challenging situations with parents and students.

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Improving workplace safety and health

Dr Tan revealed that the Heightened Safety Period (HSP) initiative has helped to reduce workplace fatalities.

He added that more details on HSP’s impact will be shared at the upcoming National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign on 23 May 2023.

The Manpower Minister was responding to NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Melvin Yong’s 8 May 2023 Parliamentary queries on the effectiveness of the Heightened Safety Period (HSP) initiative and the plans to extend it beyond 31 May 2023.

In a separate Facebook post on 8 May 2023, MOM revealed that over 1,000 inspections were conducted on high-risk companies between February and April this year as part of a nine-week enforcement operation targeting work-at-height infringements.   

Some 2,425 contraventions by 777 companies resulted in 10 Stop Work Orders and 240 composition fines of nearly $0.5 million.

MOM Occupational Safety and Health Inspectorate Director Sebastian Tan said this enforcement exercise highlighted the lack of emphasis on workplace safety and health.

He elaborated: “Basic safety precautions such as ensuring guarded openings, safe access and egress between working levels, and effective guardrails were not adhered to. It is imperative for employers to put the safety of their workers first. Sloppy implementation of workplace safety measures can put lives at risk and disrupt business operations.

“MOM will not hesitate to take tough actions against errant companies or individuals who fail to ensure a safe working environment.”

The MOM Director added that workers “must also take ownership of their own safety and call out any unsafe practices”.