Since the announcement in August that anti-discrimination legislation will be enacted, both the public and parliamentarians have raised relevant questions about what the legislation entails and its implications (What's needed in new laws to ensure fair play at the workplace?, Nov 13).
However, there are some concerns regarding the new laws that suggest an incomplete understanding of the reality of workplace discrimination.
To ensure that the anti-discrimination legislation is comprehensive, all vulnerable groups must be protected.
Currently, the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices that will be enshrined into law protect employees from discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities, and disability.
Absent is any mention of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Workplace harassment should also be categorised as a form of discrimination under the new law.
Discrimination can be expressed through harassment, such as in instances where employers or co-workers create a hostile, intimidating or threatening work environment through words or actions.
Marginalised groups, including LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) people, are more vulnerable to harassment due to deep-seated discriminatory stereotypes.
The upcoming legislation should also be accompanied by relevant examples to provide clarity on different forms of discrimination. Indirect forms of discrimination tend to escape attention. Indirect discrimination results from policies that apply to everybody at the workplace, but disproportionately affect a marginalised group.
Another obstacle that should be addressed is that of under-reporting. A national survey by market researcher Ipsos and the Association of Women for Action and Research this year showed that only three in 10 victims of workplace sexual harassment filed official reports. As Straits Times senior political correspondent Tham Yuen-C points out, there is a fear of retaliation or damage to one's reputation that can hold victims back from reporting.
To reduce the barriers faced during the reporting process, the new legislation should offer victims and witnesses better protection from retaliatory action by perpetrators and employers.
Legislation alone cannot eradicate discrimination. However, at the minimum, it will set out clear standards for businesses, and offer employees far-reaching legal protection and recourse. Other policies, including mandatory anti-discrimination training, have to be developed in tandem to bolster workers' safety, well-being and productivity.
Executive, Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory
Association of Women for Action and Research