News analysis

National Day Rally 2021: At last, drawing a legal red line under discriminatory hiring

Companies which discriminate against locals will face the full force of the law. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement on Sunday (Aug 29) that the local employment practices watchdog will get more teeth, among other measures, will come as good news to many.

For Singaporeans who fear that their rice bowls will be taken away by foreigners, they would have come away with a clear message: That companies which discriminate against locals will face the full force of the law.

For MPs - both from the PAP and the opposition - who wrestled with the issue in and out of Parliament, the move to enshrine the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices' (Tafep) guidelines in law has been a hard-fought journey, which has now reached a conclusion.

Labour MP and National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay, for example, has for years pushed for Tafep to have expanded powers of investigation, enforcement and punishment against employers with discriminatory practices.

"The positive move and announcement will help ensure we can level the playing field for our Singaporean professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), especially the mature PMEs above 40 years of age," he told The Straits Times on Sunday.

Today, the main levers to minimise unfair treatment and hiring are the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices and the Fair Consideration Framework.

Complaints are handled by Tafep and the Manpower Ministry, and the ministry has, over time, curtailed the work pass privileges of employers who do not abide by the fair employment guidelines.

But there has always been one niggling problem for Tafep: Its lack of legal powers to take errant employers to task.

It was patently clear that some recalcitrant companies were still playing punk - despite the authorities' moral suasion, and even after being placed on a watch list for lacking the commitment to nurture a Singaporean core.

Sunday night's announcement finally puts to rest concerns over the existing framework.

Singapore is not the first to move ahead with such legislation.

In Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age, disability, race and gender identity in areas such as education and employment.

Hong Kong's anti-discrimination laws were broadened last year to protect breastfeeding mothers, among others.

Will the new legislation raise business costs and lower Singapore's competitiveness? Empirical evidence from other countries' experiences is neither widespread nor conclusive.

What can be said is that enacting specific anti-discrimination laws, like those in other countries, do not in themselves lead to superior employment outcomes.

For example, the employment rates of older workers aged 55 to 64 in Britain and the United States, which have such laws, are lower than those in Singapore.

What anti-discrimination legislation does is help weed out the most blatant forms of discrimination, and prominent cases can be useful for public education.

But courts around the world have, over time, moved towards mediation and conciliation, with many anti-discrimination cases settled privately - the approach which the Government is proposing, with the setting up of a new workplace discrimination tribunal.

It is modelling its approach on how another class of disputes - those over salaries or wrongful dismissals - are dealt with under the Employment Claims Tribunals (ECT).

Under the ECT, parties submit a request for mediation. If mediation is successful, both sign on to a settlement agreement which requires both sides to amicably resolve disputes, and to comply with certain terms.

There are many reasons why people settle, instead of seeking legal redress for every real or perceived slight: the higher costs involved, the risk of greater costs if one loses, and even reputational damage.

Conciliation and mediation allow parties to work out a mutually acceptable and sometimes more practical resolution.

The Prime Minister acknowledged as much on Sunday when he described writing Tafep guidelines into law a "major move".

"We should still resolve workplace disputes informally and amicably, if at all possible. The legal redress should be a last recourse," he said.

The new anti-discrimination tribunal, he added, will also better protect women, and disallow discrimination based on age, race, religion and disability.

It is easy to point fingers and cast blame on one party or the other, when people are anxious over jobs and opportunities.

What Mr Lee did on Sunday was to steer clear of binary stereotypes. He acknowledged the complexities of people's lived experiences and emotions, which are sometimes at odds with the facts and economic arguments.

Yes, a few companies hire people from their own countries, based on personal connections instead of merit.

Yes, some non-Singaporeans do not integrate into society here.

On the other hand, many have worked on the front line with locals, and have themselves suffered personal hardship during the coronavirus pandemic.

They are here to complement Singapore's workforce and help grow the economy - which, in turn, creates more jobs for locals - and they are often the first to lose their jobs during an economic downturn.

But Singaporeans, too, must be open to living with and accepting others who are not exactly like them.

PM Lee posed three questions on Sunday which have weighed heavily on the minds of many Singaporeans: Is my employer hiring work pass holders at my expense? Is he treating me fairly when it comes to postings and promotions? Is he developing and preparing me to take on bigger responsibilities?

Those questions received an airing and answer on Sunday night.

But it is also worth noting how PM Lee concluded that particular section of his speech - with a clarion call for openness: "We must not... give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners. It would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub. It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities."

R​ead next: 7 highlights from PM Lee Hsien Loong's ​National Day Rally

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.