Workers can expect better protection against unfair treatment at work as Singapore moves one step closer towards legislating a framework to safeguard workplace fairness.
The Government has accepted the final recommendations of the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness (TCWF), which includes the 20 recommendations laid out in the interim report announced in February 2023 and two new recommendations.
The acceptance was announced by TCWF co-chairs – Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, NTUC Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) President Robert Yap – on 4 August 2023 at the National Press Centre.
Dr Tan said the legislation marks a significant step in Singapore’s employment law, and it will scoped to preserve harmonious workplaces, better protect workers, and support business growth.
“From surveys, engagements and complaints, we know the common forms of discrimination experienced in Singapore. The Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL) will prohibit these common forms of discrimination – including age, sex, family status, race, nationality, and mental health.
“Our approach places emphasis on giving redress to the worker who experienced discrimination while preserving workplace harmony and relationships,” he said.
Mr Ng said that NTUC welcomes this legislation as it sets out to create a fairer workplace for different classes of workers in Singapore.
“On our part, NTUC and our unions will continue to ensure workers get the protection that they need through NTUC and unions’ established industrial relations framework. Beyond legislation, we will and must continue to improve HR standards and practices so that we can provide our workers with fair access and equal opportunities at the workplace,” he said.
Dr Yap said that ideally, employers would not want any legislation as it can impede on business growth, but SNEF recognises the need to take appropriate action against errant employers.
“The workplace legislation will send a strong signal that workplace discrimination has no place in Singapore,” he said.
The Government will be working closely with tripartite partners to implement the recommendations in 2024.
Once enacted, the legislative framework will cover all stages of employment – including in-, post- and more importantly, pre- employment – where majority of discrimination complaints derive from today, according to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
The legislation seeks to protect workers and jobseekers against unfair or discriminatory practices under the following protected characteristics, namely nationality; age; sex, marital status, pregnancy status, caregiving responsibilities; race, language and religion; disability and mental health conditions.
The legislation will not cover sexual orientation, gender identity, and criminal history.
TCWF recommended keeping the scope of legislation tight for now, and that the proposed characteristics covers 95 per cent of all discrimination complaints received by MOM and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP), and protects 75 per cent of all workers in Singapore.
The legislation will work in concert with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TGFEP) to provide protection against all forms of discrimination.
To allow smaller companies time to adhere to the changes and build up their human resource capabilities, they would be exempted from the legislation for the first five years.
They would, however, still be subjected to the guidelines stipulated in the TGFEP.
NTUC Assistant Secretary-General Patrick Tay shared that the recommendations further fortify and augment tripartite partners’ capabilities in this space of creating a fairer, more level playing field for all workers.
“I think that the final piece of legislation will further augment our efforts to better look after the interests and welfare of workers,” said Mr Tay, who is also a member in the TCWF.
The TCWF proposed two new recommendations to help further refine the legislation.
For one, the committee suggested that a clear definition for “discrimination” was both necessary and beneficial for employers and employees to understand what the law would cover.
In its final report, the TCWF recommended defining “discrimination” as “making an adverse employment decision because of any protected characteristic”.
It also recommended that the legislation only cover direct acts of discrimination, as covering indirect discrimination poses “very wide legal obligations on employers”. The committee shared that acts of indirect discrimination could involve a seemingly neutral company practice that has an effect of putting persons with certain protected characteristic at a disadvantage.
The TCWF felt that it would be best to leave such cases to TAFEP, where the alliance could help both employer and employees find a reasonable approach to resolve such disputes.
Meanwhile, the committee also recommended that a Tripartite Advisory be issued on providing reasonable accommodations to persons with disability.
The TCWF felt that legislating the need to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities is an overly rigid approach that risks creating a more litigious workplace.
Instead, it concluded that better outcomes could be achieved for employees with disabilities and employers through TAFEP’s intervention.
Ultimately, the WFL aims to strengthen workplace harmony while providing protection and redress to workers who experience discrimination.
The TCWF hopes that the recommendations would improve Singapore’s workplace culture, and not result in one that is litigious.
The committee added that the legislation is not a “cure” for workplace discrimination, and that education remains key to correcting stereotypes and sustaining fair employment practices.
In its final report, the committee concluded that it is “confident that this new legislation, coupled with other enforcement measures and continued education efforts, will help to advance fair and progressive employment practices in Singapore.”