From 'toothless tiger' to ardent advocate of fairer workplace

Employment practice watchdog marks 10th year, aims to help firms develop workforce

Mrs Roslyn Ten
Mrs Roslyn Ten

When it started 10 years ago, the national watchdog overseeing complaints of discrimination in hiring and at work had a tough time reaching out to employers.

It has since come a long way from its early days of running campaigns about treating workers fairly, and now also speaks out for local workers and flexible work arrangements.

As it celebrates its 10th year this week, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) plans to help companies do more to develop staff, especially as workforce growth slows, said general manager Roslyn Ten.

"Whatever human resource you have needs to be turned into human capital," she said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Tafep was set up in 2006 as the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, with eight representatives from the Government, unions and employers.

It was led by then labour MP Halimah Yacob and the then vice-president of Singapore National Employers Federation, Mr Bob Tan. The main issues were bosses who discriminated against potential hires based on age or race, or who dismissed pregnant workers.


This means coming out very strongly to say something is not right, and calling out employers that have done the wrong thing.

MRS ROSLYN TEN, Tafep general manager, on moving into advocacy work.

Tafep put out guidelines in 2007 to tackle this, spelling out ways for employers to hire and manage employees based on merit rather than on age, gender, race, religion, family responsibilities or disabilities.

Madam Halimah recalls: "We started from ground zero as there was really nothing then to deal with complaints of discrimination, unless the action complained of also resulted in a breach of employment laws.

"We created a process so that people can file complaints, along with a procedure to investigate and follow up with the employers."

Later, complaints about preferential treatment of foreigners rose. In 2011, Tafep took on this issue by updating its guidelines to include maintaining a Singaporean core.


    MAY 2006: Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), with eight representatives from the Government, employers and unions, holds first meeting

    MAY 2007: Launch of Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices recommending merit-based practices for recruiting and remunerating employees

    APRIL 2010: FedEx Express, Maybank Singapore, Philips Electronics Singapore and Cherie Hearts Group International win first Tafep Exemplary Employer Award

    OCTOBER 2011: New section added to tripartite guidelines on how employers can maintain a Singaporean core in their workforce

    SEPTEMBER 2013: Fair Consideration Framework announced. From August 2014, firms have to prove they tried to hire Singaporeans first before they are allowed to recruit foreign professionals

    APRIL 2014: Tafep starts to also champion work-life harmony and age management as progressive employment practices. It is now the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices

    APRIL 2016: Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say announces Tafep will have a bigger role to investigate and recommend employers who should be put on a watch list for firms that are not committed to building a strong Singaporean core

In 2013, with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) taking a tougher stance on employers who discriminate based on nationality and also the setting out of the Fair Consideration Framework, Tafep moved into advocacy work.

"This means coming out very strongly to say something is not right, and calling out employers that have done the wrong thing," said Mrs Ten, who took over the helm in 2013.

She recalls "criticisms that there was only so much Tafep can do - what if employers don't listen?That gave rise to criticisms such as 'no bite', 'toothless tiger' and so on".

"Now when we feel that employers need to be penalised, we can work with MOM," she added.

Tafep now reports errant employers who do not heed its advice to improve their hiring of locals to MOM, which this year started putting such employers on a watch list. If they do not improve, they can be suspended from hiring foreign workers.

Mrs Ten said most companies do listen before things get to that stage. "When we come in to work with you, we want to support you and enable you to change," she said.

One company it worked with last year on fair employment issues was frozen yogurt chain llaollao, which promised to improve hiring guidelines after a local woman was allegedly turned away from a job interview as she could not speak Mandarin. A complaint was made to Tafep after the woman posted about it on social media.

Mrs Ten believes Tafep's advocacy has contributed to fewer discriminatory job ads and a greater awareness among bosses and staff about a fair workplace. The total number of complaints Tafep received dropped by more than half from 2013 to 2015.

Ms Terri Lei, a programme and partnership development consultant who joined Tafep in 2008, finds it satisfying to see companies change for the better, saying: "Some have heeded our advice and redesigned their job application forms to ask only for information that's relevant to the job."

Two years ago, Tafep expanded its work to include championing progressive employment practices such as work-life harmony and age management. It also added the word "progressive" to its name.

It tries to lead the way too. Its staff of 50 have options such as telecommuting and flexible working hours.

Besides running campaigns, providing toolkits for companies and publishing research, Tafep holds workshops to share best practices.

Mr Lawrence Chai, managing director of 3E Accounting, picked up tips from other companies at these sessions. His firm began a cloud-based performance appraisal system this month, which lets its 26-strong staff and supervisors set goals and give feedback. Flexible hours are also accepted.

He finds that staff morale and company competitiveness have improved. "We want to be ahead, have the best terms and attract the best talent, if not we will be left behind," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'From 'toothless tiger' to ardent advocate of fairer workplace'. Subscribe