About two-thirds of reported cases of workplace discrimination are not substantiated, and the majority of these are misunderstandings that are subsequently clarified and not pursued further by either party.
Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon said this in Parliament yesterday as he noted that the Government would continue to emphasise mediation as a first and necessary step, even as it moves to enshrine fair employment guidelines in law.
His reply to MPs came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally that guidelines under the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) would form the basis for anti-discrimination laws, with a tribunal set up to tackle workplace discrimination across gender, age, race, religion and disability.
"If there is a complaint, Tafep uses these guidelines to evaluate and advise the parties," said Dr Koh. "Where Tafep finds gaps in the employer's HR (human resources) practices, Tafep would counsel the employer. Most employers accept and make amends."
Very rarely does the employer dispute the assessment and refuse to correct its actions, he added.
The mediation process in itself is therefore an opportunity for employers and employees to close gaps in their understanding of requirements, he said.
Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) and Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) raised concerns over the possibility of the new laws fostering a litigious workplace culture. In reply, Dr Koh said the tribunal should be a last resort - similar to how salary-related and wrongful dismissal cases are dealt with through conciliation and mediation at the first instance.
A tripartite committee set up in July to examine policy options for workplace fairness, including laws, aims to complete its work in the first half of next year. The Government will consider its recommendations and, if accepted, start work to prepare legislation, said Dr Koh. In the meantime, Tafep and the Manpower Ministry will continue to ensure guidelines for fair and merit-based workplace practices are practised and upheld, he added.
Since it was set up in 2006, Tafep has set out to avoid a legalistic or confrontational process, favouring education and the amicable resolution of disputes instead, Dr Koh said. The upcoming legislation, he added, would build on this approach and broaden the range of remedies available.
"For workers, the remedies could give them direct redress, rather than indirectly through enforcement action against the employer," he said. "For employers, curtailment of their work pass privileges... can in some cases be disproportionate to the breach. Even if there is some mitigating factor, there are currently no alternative penalties that could provide for a more calibrated approach.
"Legislation will... send a strong signal that society does not condone discrimination at the workplace, and further entrench the fair employment standards that we have built up over the years."
He also said about one in seven reported cases in each of the last three years was in the category of gender discrimination.
Most of these related to specifying a gender preference in job ads. About 30 per cent of the cases saw work pass privileges of the errant employers curtailed.
Dr Koh noted that anxieties over discrimination could also be driven by perceptions. "Not every complaint means the employer has done something wrong. The process must be fair to both the worker and the employer," he said.
"By adopting an even-handed approach, we can avoid a situation where employers are deterred by excessive legal compliance to further expand their businesses."