Work harassment pact too broad for Singapore to sign: MOM

While there is no official data on the prevalence of workplace harassment cases, the Association of Women for Action and Research last year handled 192 cases involving sexual and non-sexual harassment.
While there is no official data on the prevalence of workplace harassment cases, the Association of Women for Action and Research last year handled 192 cases involving sexual and non-sexual harassment.ST FILE PHOTO

It is 6th nation to abstain from vote for labour standard that goes 'beyond workplace remit'

A landmark pact that aims to combat harassment and violence in the workplace was adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last month - but Singapore abstained from voting for it, joining a minority of five other governments that did so.

The Violence And Harassment Convention 2019 is an international labour standard that will be legally binding for countries that choose to ratify it.

If Singapore does so, one of the requirements with which it has to comply is to adopt laws and regulations mandating a workplace policy on violence and harassment, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Currently, companies here are not obliged to have such a policy.

Singapore will also be expected to ensure that cases of violence and harassment at work can be effectively investigated.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) spokesman said that the tripartite partners - comprising MOM, the National Trades Union Congress and Singapore National Employers Federation - felt that "the scope of the convention was cast very broadly".

For instance, it proposes that states recognise the effects of domestic violence and mitigate its impact in the workplace.

"This would expand workplace safety and health well beyond the workplace remit," MOM said.

CALL FOR HELP

Not all workers wish to pursue legally punitive action. Many simply want their employers to step in and stop the harassment, and provide safe conditions. At present, employers are not obliged to do so.

MS SHAILEY HINGORANI, Aware's head of advocacy and research.

It added: "We have a longstanding policy of only ratifying conventions which are in the interest of Singapore, and with which we are sure our policies and laws are fully in accord.

"Our approach differs from some other countries, who may ratify a convention to simply 'check a box', or vote for a convention even if they cannot comply with it and have no intention to ratify."

Malaysia, Paraguay, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and El Salvador were the other countries that abstained.

Explaining some of the implications of Singapore ratifying the convention, family lawyer Rajan Chettiar said that employers may then need to play a role in mitigating domestic violence by counselling employees who face such issues, or giving time off for victims to seek help.

"If this is mandated, it may be difficult for employers to balance this with business demands," he said.

MOM also said that Singapore already has "strong protections against workplace violence and harassment".

For instance, egregious cases such as outrage of modesty are punishable offences under the Penal Code or can be taken up under the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha).

MOM added that for cases that do not come under Poha, employees may seek help through their companies' grievance handling processes or approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) for advice and assistance.

MOM said that the tripartite partners will consider whether it is in Singapore's interests to ratify the convention if its requirements can be clarified in the future.

Ms Anthea Ong, Nominated Member of Parliament, said that Singapore can still do more to beef up protections against workplace harassment and that working towards the ratification of the ILO convention can catalyse ongoing efforts on this front.

She has filed a parliamentary question on Singapore's abstention from the ILO vote for the upcoming session on Monday and Tuesday next week.

While there is no official data on the prevalence of workplace harassment cases, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) last year handled 192 cases involving sexual and non-sexual harassment.

Observers said these reported cases are also likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, given that Tafep may lack the legal teeth to deal with cases that do not fall under the Penal Code or Poha.

For instance, as of January, more than 960 companies have adopted a set of practices under the Tripartite Standard On Grievance Handling to address workplace unhappiness, including sexual harassment complaints.

But Tafep has no power to make it compulsory for companies to adopt these practices, said Mr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting.

Cases such as lewd remarks from colleagues may be seen by arbitrators as falling into a grey area and therefore not be fairly dealt with as workplace harassment.

This can discourage victims from speaking up, said Mr Leong.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, Aware's head of advocacy and research, said the group was disappointed that Singapore had abstained from the ILO vote.

"Not all workers wish to pursue legally punitive action. Many simply want their employers to step in and stop the harassment, and provide safe conditions. At present, employers are not obliged to do so," she said.

However, upcoming amendments to Poha that were passed in May might be able to address some existing gaps, said Mr Ian Lim, partner and head of employment at TSMP Law Corp.

For example, the new Protection from Harassment Court will be able to grant protection orders to victims more quickly, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2019, with the headline 'Work harassment pact too broad for S'pore to sign: MOM'. Print Edition | Subscribe