New anti-discrimination law does not seek to change standards of fairness, firms told

There will be no change for employers if they have been complying with fair employment guidelines as a planned law on workplace discrimination is not seeking to change standards of fairness.

This was the consensus answer to some of the burning questions from human resources (HR) professionals and company representatives yesterday at a dialogue organised by the Ministry of Manpower and other partners.

The starting point for the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness, set up to look at Singapore's first ever workplace discrimination laws, is that the current Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices' (Tafep) fair employment guidelines have been effective.

The new legislation, therefore, does not intend to make it more difficult for companies to comply.

The questions were raised by the 150 or so participants at the Dialogue on Workplace Fairness, during a session that was held under Chatham House Rule, which forbids the identity or affiliation of any speakers to be revealed.

The participants also asked whether HR professionals themselves or companies and company directors would be taken to task under the new law. They were told that the tripartite committee was still considering the options.

The law on workplace discrimination was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the National Day Rally in August. He said the Government will enshrine Tafep guidelines into law to give them more teeth and expand the range of actions that can be taken against errant companies.

Before the dialogue session yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad said during a panel discussion that the tripartite committee has engaged a wide range of stakeholders across diverse industries and occupations since September. From the feedback received, discrimination based on age, race and nationality is the top bugbear, added Mr Zaqy, who is a member of the committee.

This is also borne out by data from Tafep, said its general manager Faith Li, who also spoke on the panel.

Another common concern is that it is challenging to determine what specific actions constitute workplace discrimination, Mr Zaqy said, adding that the feedback called for the tripartite committee to set out requirements under the new legislation clearly.

At the same time, employers and workers in their feedback also emphasised the need for flexibility in HR practices across sectors and across specific company operations, he noted.

OCBC Group chief HR officer Jason Ho, who was also a panellist, said it is important for the law to provide clarity on what is deemed fair and what is discriminatory, so that it will be easier for firms to know if they are in compliance.

Meanwhile, Singapore University of Technology and Design chief HR officer Jaclyn Lee said during the panel discussion that more training should be provided to HR professionals so that they will be able to put in place the right systems and processes in the first place.

Mr Zaqy said stakeholders also said the upcoming legislation should not result in onerous processes for both businesses and claimants. He added: "The Tripartite Committee is taking the feedback on board. Indeed, we believe that legal redress should be the last, and not the first, recourse. All parties need to work hard to settle disputes through mediation and conciliation."

He also noted that in general, Singaporeans welcome the move to enshrine current guidelines on workplace discrimination into law.

The tripartite committee expects to reach out to over 5,000 people, including employers, workers, HR professionals, and volunteers from grassroots and non-governmental organisations by the end of the first quarter of next year. This will be done through survey polls, focus group discussions and dialogue sessions, said Mr Zaqy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2021, with the headline 'New anti-discrimination law does not seek to change standards of fairness, firms told'. Subscribe