SINGAPORE - The fair employment watchdog will soon get more teeth to deal with workplace discrimination when its guidelines become law.
The move will give the authorities a wider range of options to ensure fair treatment at the workplace, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, including tackling unfair hiring practices against Singaporeans.
Enshrining the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) guidelines into law is a major move, said Mr Lee in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 29).
It signals that Singapore will not tolerate discrimination at workplaces, he added.
In his speech, Mr Lee addressed the concerns of middle-income Singaporeans over competition with work pass holders for jobs and opportunities at work.
A key plank in the Government's efforts will be the creation of a tribunal to deal with workplace discrimination.
This will protect workers against discrimination based on nationality, age, race, religion and disability, as well as other kinds of discrimination covered by Tafep.
Women will also get better protection, he added.
Mr Lee said: "Philosophically, writing Tafep guidelines into the law is a major move. It signals that we do not tolerate discrimination at workplaces.
"But in practice, we hope to operate in a similar way as today, except better. We should still resolve workplace disputes informally and amicably, if at all possible."
The legal redress should be a last recourse, he added. It should be seldom needed, but whose existence will cause the parties to work harder to settle the dispute, through conciliation and mediation.
The approach will be modelled after how another class of disputes is currently dealt with - those over salaries or wrongful dismissals.
In such disputes, conciliation and mediation are tried first.
Only when that fails does the matter go before an Employment Claims Tribunal, which will arbitrate and decide the case, he said.
Tafep was set up in 2006 as a three-way partnership between the Government, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation.
It provides guidelines on fair employment practices, such as how employers must recruit and select workers based on merit - regardless of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities, or disability.
All Singapore-based organisations are expected to abide by the guidelines, said Tafep on its website. The guidelines were first launched in 2007.
In his speech, Mr Lee said there have been complaints about financial institutions and information technology or IT firms hiring too many foreigners, but these are rapidly growing sectors where skills are in short supply.
These firms also perform regional and global functions, which require both local and foreign talent, he added.
They have also recruited many Singaporeans, and groomed promising ones to take on senior and international positions, Mr Lee said.
However, there have been a few errant employers that hire from their own countries using familiar links and old boys' networks rather than on merit.
And they make only token gestures in hiring Singaporeans, and when that happens, government agencies have dealt with them firmly, he added.
For example, when the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) gets a complaint about human resource practices at a bank, it investigates thoroughly.
And if the complaint is valid, MAS will speak to the bank at a senior level.
Mr Lee said: "When MAS raises one eyebrow, the banks take it very seriously."
The same is true for IT companies when the Infocomm Media Development Authority takes notice, he added.
Mr Lee said most companies comply with Tafep's guidelines, and if a company falls short, the watchdog will counsel it.
"And if it still fails to get its act together, the Manpower Ministry can impose administrative penalties, including restricting it from hiring foreign workers. This has generally worked quite well."
Over the years, the Government has received repeated requests to toughen up Tafep, Mr Lee said. In particular, MPs with links to the labour movement and NTUC have long pushed for anti-discrimination laws that carry penalties.
Last month, Pioneer MP Patrick Tay and Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat, among others, spoke in Parliament about the need for Tafep's powers to be expanded through legislation.
In response, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said a tripartite committee has been set up to examine policy options to ensure workplace fairness, including whether legislative protections should be pursued.
The committee aims to complete its work by the first half of next year.
PM Lee said: "The Government has held back because we did not want the process to become legalistic or confrontational. It is better if disputes can be resolved amicably, through persuasion or mediation."
But after consulting the tripartite partners, the Government has decided to adopt the labour MPs' suggestions, he added.