MOM reviewing all options to tackle workplace discrimination: Tan See Leng

Employers who don't consider S'poreans fairly for jobs may face stiffer penalties

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is reviewing how to strengthen measures to tackle workplace discrimination more effectively.

While anti-discrimination laws will not be a panacea for unfair employment practices, the authorities are considering all options, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng yesterday.

Stiffer penalties may be adopted for employers who do not consider Singaporeans fairly for job opportunities, he said.

The ministry and tripartite partners are reviewing the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices.

Speaking to reporters after a community event at Joo Chiat Community Club, Dr Tan said "it will not be long" before they come back with a recommendation.

The minister was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh's recent comments calling for businesses to lobby the Government to pass anti-discrimination laws.

Last Thursday, Mr Singh said that while the Workers' Party supports in principle MOM's Fair Consideration Framework, it needs more teeth.

Employers who unfairly hire foreigners over Singaporeans are subjected only to administrative penalties, he said at an event organised by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

He added that anti-discrimination laws with statutory penalties would send a "powerful signal" for businesses to change how they recruit staff.

MOM's Fair Consideration Framework, which was introduced in 2014, sets out the requirements for employers in Singapore to consider Singaporeans fairly for job opportunities before hiring foreign professionals on the Employment Pass and S Pass.

Dr Tan noted that Mr Singh was not the first parliamentarian to call for anti-discrimination laws.

People's Action Party labour MP Saktiandi Supaat was among the first to moot the idea, and many others, including PAP MPs Patrick Tay and Louis Ng, have reiterated those calls, he said.

Dr Tan said that MOM has taken a nuanced approach by consulting and working with the unions and businesses on this issue.

In this regard, the Fair Consideration Framework allows MOM to identify firms that carry out unfair hiring practices and work with them to improve their processes.

Recalcitrant firms will have their work pass privileges suspended for between 12 and 24 months. These make up a "small minority", he said.

"We do not want to be also seen as having a very, very prescribed framework that restricts (businesses)," he said.

"As we open up our doors to the world, we also want to establish a fair, meritocratic-based system of progression for our Singaporean core, as well as for people who come and work," he said.

The framework is currently being reviewed to see what stiffer penalties can be adopted to take action against errant firms.

He noted that given the way industry is changing so rapidly, being overly prescriptive can lead to jobs moving elsewhere as well.

"We are also trying to make sure we don't inadvertently push businesses overseas," he said. "In the short run, we may seem to have some benefit, but in the long run, we actually end up losing out. So it's a very delicate balance."

Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, who was the Manpower Minister before Dr Tan, said in a Facebook post yesterday that she supports his plan to strengthen measures against workplace discrimination.

She noted that last year before Covid-19 struck, MOM had made "Fairness at Work" its top priority for the year.

Under the Fair Consideration Framework, penalties were stiffened for companies found to have practised any form of discrimination and not just nationality discrimination, she noted.

She noted that in November 2019, she urged businesses to pay more attention to their workforce profiles and to groom locals for career advancements and strive for more diversity of their foreign workforce.

Other PAP MPs had also spoken to her "extensively" since last year on potential laws to tackle discrimination. These views were shared with Dr Tan, said Mrs Teo.

She noted that last year, MOM pushed through policy changes such as raising the salary thresholds for Employment and S Passes and the reduction of S Pass quotas, among other things, "to further strengthen the complementarity of the local and foreign workforce".

"The foreign workforce shrank considerably, and this helped cushion the impact on local employment," she said. As Singapore works to recover from Covid-19, it is timely to revisit how fair practice measures can be strengthened, she said, agreeing with Dr Tan that the aim "cannot be to create more friction for progressive employers, but to hold the egregious ones to account".

She added: "Mr Singh's call for legislative change therefore has a ring of familiarity to it. His acknowledgement that keeping Singapore open has been an overall plus for our people is, however, quite refreshing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 11, 2021, with the headline MOM reviewing all options to tackle workplace discrimination: Tan See Leng. Subscribe