Forum: Take into account employees' perspective when drafting law on workplace discrimination

While the newly announced anti-discrimination legislation is a significant and much-needed step for Singapore, recent comments in Parliament indicate a continued lack of understanding about what it takes to truly tackle discrimination at work.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon on Tuesday said about two-thirds of reported cases of workplace discrimination are not substantiated. The minister seemed to infer from this that a large number of discrimination reports are baseless, noting that most of them stemmed from misunderstandings.

However, it is unclear that this is indeed the case. Workplace discrimination is often very difficult to substantiate.

While the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) provides a useful framework to understand what workplace discrimination can look like, it requires claims to be substantiated by evidence that employees often do not have.

Discrimination often takes place in private conversations, and employees may not be able to document these to support their cases.

That does not mean that discrimination is not occurring, but simply that it cannot be easily proved.

Legislation should ensure that subtle forms of discrimination do not go unaddressed, and that employees have adequate protection against all kinds of discrimination.

Dr Koh also placed an emphasis on mediation as the first step to resolve cases of workplace discrimination.

Mediation can be useful for communication between employers and employees, but it may not be appropriate in all cases.

For many victims of discrimination, having to face their employers in such a setting is potentially traumatising. This does not make for a level playing field.

To make the mediation processes fairer and safer for all parties, employees could, for instance, opt to have a trained social worker present, who could help communicate on their behalf in emotionally distressing moments.

Lastly, Dr Koh mentioned that about one in seven reported discrimination cases involves discrimination on the basis of gender. However, discrimination based on gender identity (or sexual orientation) is not currently covered by the tripartite guidelines. This suggests that the cases seen by Tafep so far may not be representative of the full range of such discrimination occurring in Singapore.

About eight in 10 of the discrimination cases seen by the Association of Women for Action and Research's Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory last year involved maternity, family care, or gender/ gender identity discrimination.

We urge that discrimination against any minority groups be enshrined in the upcoming legislation.

Dr Koh said an "even-handed approach" will help both employers and employees. We wholeheartedly agree. Therefore, we hope that the tripartite partners and the Government will seriously consider the perspective of employees when drafting this crucial legislation.

Margaret Thomas

President

Association of Women for Action and Research