Singapore’s anti-discrimination guidelines given “more teeth” to soothe workers’ fears
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Plans by Singapore’s government to formally enact anti-discrimination guidelines into law has been described as a prosaic but important step for Asia’s business hub as it seeks to soothe simmering tensions between local and foreign workers.

The Little Red Dot’s Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) provides guidance on workplace discrimination and counsels companies that fall short of the guidelines.

However, in his 29 August National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that while TAFEP provides “clear guidelines” on the fair treatment of workers, enshrining the guidance into law would “give them more teeth, and expand the range of actions we can take”.

Under the plans, disputes over salaries or wrongful dismissal must first go through a conciliation and mediation process. However, if a settlement cannot be reached, a new employment claims tribunal will arbitrate and decide the case.

A tribunal constituted to deal with workplace discrimination will similarly be created to “protect workers against discrimination based on nationality” as well as other forms of discrimination covered by TAFEP, Prime Minister Lee explained.

“Women will get better protection and discrimination based on age, race, religion, and disability will also be disallowed,” he added.

“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,” Lee said. “Its existence will cause parties to work harder to settle the dispute, through conciliation and mediation”.

“While this appears to be a groundbreaking development, the reality is somewhat more prosaic,” said Clarence Ding, of counsel in Simmons & Simmons’ labour and employment practice, who notes that TAFEP already has fairly wide-ranging powers to impose penalties and, more crucially, bar errant employers from hiring foreign employees.

“To the extent the Singapore government intends to toughen the current set of guidelines by giving TAFEP more teeth, this is, of course, welcome as it will help to balance out the playing field by providing employees with more rights and entitlements vis-à-vis errant employers.”

Also commenting on the news, Fatim Jumabhoy, who leads Herbert Smith Freehill’s employment, pensions, and incentives team in Singapore, said: “Enshrining anti-discrimination ideals into law is an important step forward for Singapore, both in terms of creating greater diversity and inclusion within workplaces and achieving parity with the rest of the region.

“While tripartism and a collaborative approach remain important to resolving workplace concerns, providing real and significant consequences for breaches of the TAFEP guidelines will hold errant employers to account. For most multinationals, who are voluntarily abiding by the guidelines, little will change; but for those who haven’t put fair work practices on their corporate agenda, this law will expedite those discussions.”

The move to formalise workplace protections follows “repeated requests” from Singapore’s labour movement, the National Trades Union Congress in particular, for anti-discrimination laws to carry penalties and amid a “growing restlessness” among middle-income Singaporeans that they are treated unfairly compared to foreigners with work passes.

In his televised speech, Prime Minister Lee said Singaporeans were raising “valid questions” on whether their employer is hiring work-pass holders at the expense of local talent and providing all staff – domestic and foreign – with equal opportunities for promotion and advancement.

Financial institutions and IT companies have been singled out, in particular, for allegedly unfair treatment in the workplace and for importing too many foreign workers.

“Both these sectors have a large share of work-pass holders,” said Lee, adding that finance and IT are growing sectors that have recruited “many Singaporeans” to perform effectively throughout the region.

“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,” the prime minister noted, while also admitting 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,” he told viewers.

Lee added: “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.”

Singapore’s Fair Consideration Framework specifically requires employers to proactively consider the Singaporean workforce fairly for job opportunities, and to adopt measures that strengthen the Singaporean core of employees, Simmons & Simmons’ Ding explained.

“It will, therefore, be interesting to see if the proposed law is genuinely anti-discriminatory in nature and, if so, how it will sit alongside the requirements of the Fair Consideration Framework, which is intended to give Singaporean employees a leg up and first bite of the proverbial employment cherry,” he added.

In a further effort to assuage locals’ concerns that foreigners who compete for Singaporean jobs are of the “right standard”, Lee said, “a practical and reasonable indication of quality, the standard, is how much the employer is prepared to pay for the work pass holder”.

The city state’s prime minister said his government would continue to tighten the criteria for Employment Pass and S Pass holders by “gradually and progressively” raising salary cut-offs over time, but not in a way that would hurt businesses.

In 2020, the government raised the cut-offs twice and implemented a higher qualifying salary for the financial sector.

“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,” Lee said.

Also in his speech, Lee highlighted how, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, Singaporean workers no longer just face competition from foreigners in Singapore, but the rest of the world, too.

“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’,” he said, adding that employees now only need a good internet connection to perform their duties. 

Acknowledging that many foreign workers, separated from their own families, have contributed to Singapore during the pandemic, Lee cautioned Singaporeans “not [to] turn our backs on them, and give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners”.