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Tripartite committee to be set up to examine legislation against workplace discrimination: Tan See Leng

SINGAPORE — A committee comprising the Government, unions and employers will be formed to look into the possibility of enacting laws to tackle workplace discrimination, so as to give the authorities more bite in taking errant firms to task.

Tripartite committee to be set up to examine legislation against workplace discrimination: Tan See Leng
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  • Labour MP Patrick Tay called for stiffer punishment for firms that engage in discriminatory hiring
  • The existing penalty of suspending work passes is not enough, several MPs said
  • Manpower Minister Tan See Leng stressed the importance of Singapore’s open economy
  • The committee will have to consider the country’s competitiveness when deliberating on whether to enact new laws


SINGAPORE — A committee comprising the Government, unions and employers will be formed to look into the possibility of enacting laws to tackle workplace discrimination, so as to give the authorities more bite in taking errant firms to task.

But legislation is “not a silver bullet” and the committee will have to strike a balance of nurturing fairer workplaces while preserving Singapore’s competitiveness, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said on Monday (July 26).

Dr Tan was speaking at a debate on a parliamentary motion by labour Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Tay, in which he urged the Government to improve hiring practices.

Mr Tay, who is assistant secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), called for fairer hiring practices through improved standards and practices of human resource departments, and stiffer enforcement and penalties against firms with discriminatory hiring practices.

“Our local PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) are unhappy when many of the roles that they can undertake and do are instead being done by foreign PMEs,” the MP for Pioneer said in an adjournment motion at the end of Monday’s sitting.

Mr Tay renewed his call for the Government to publish the names of firms that flout the law and proposed that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) expand the powers of the national watchdog handling complaints of unfair hiring practices.

The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), he said, should be authorised to enforce and punish errant companies, employers and individuals found to have engaged in discriminatory hiring practices.

In the approval process for employment passes that allow foreign PMEs to work in Singapore, the Government should look beyond the applicant’s educational qualification and salary, Mr Tay added.

He suggested that the authorities implement a points system that looks into factors including the diversity of nationalities and whether the employer has been investing in hiring and developing resident workers.

Mr Tay further proposed to mandate the skills and knowledge transfer for foreign PMEs to resident PMEs in high-growth sectors within a stipulated time frame.


Joining the debate, Mr Saktiandi Supaat — MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC) — similarly called for anti-discrimination laws as well as more resources and powers for Tafep.

He raised the example of The Equality Act in the United Kingdom, which provides explicit laws to tackle discimination in hiring that covers gender, race, age, marriage, maternity and disability.

The legislation, which was enacted in 2010, replaced the UK’s previous anti-discriminatory laws into a single Act. It sets out the different ways in which the treatment of someone is unlawful.

Mr Saktiandi said: “Currently, our equality laws are ambiguous and some employers take advantage of loopholes or feign ignorance.”

He also called for concrete targets to localise the workforce.

“Hiring foreigners to fill skill gaps is a necessity. But allowing this to continue with no effort to localise after an extended period of time is simply not reflective of good corporate citizenship.” 

Mr Louis Ng, MP for Nee Soon GRC, noted that existing tripartite guidelines on fair employment practice prohibit questions on age, race, religion, marital status, family responsibilities and disability on job application forms.

But companies are still asking these questions and the practice is so widespread that it has become standard for some firms, he said.

“The tripartite guidelines remain that — guidelines,” he said. “The reality is that these guidelines are a weak deterrence and are routinely flouted.”

The penalty for flouting these guidelines is a curtailment of work passes. “It makes no sense. We’re telling companies that treating women with fairness (one of the guidelines’ objectives) is important if you want to hire foreign workers,” Mr Ng said.


In reply, Dr Tan said that the Government has never been dismissive of anti-discrimination legislation.

Such laws would give the authorities more enforcement powers beyond suspending the work pass privileges of errant employers to hire foreigners.

“However, laws alone do not guarantee better employment outcomes,” Dr Tan said.

While legislation will provide a clear premise to publicise the names of firms that breach the law, it could also have unintended consequences.

“For example, if it is not properly designed, the legal framework could be overly onerous and inadvertently deter employers from setting up shop here and hiring the very groups we seek to protect,” Dr Tan said.

He stressed the importance of Singapore’s economy staying open. “The combination of skilled locals and a diversity of foreign expertise is a key competitive advantage for us in drawing many international companies here, creating more good jobs for Singaporeans.”

The current approach has worked well for the Government, he added.

Employment outcomes for women and seniors have improved. Employment rate of women aged 25 to 64 has risen from 66 per cent in 2010 to 73 per cent in 2020.

“Nonetheless, we empathise with Singaporeans’ concerns and apprehensions,” he said.

NTUC's secretary-general Ng Chee Meng cheered the announcement of the new tripartite committee and suggested that the committee take reference from what NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation have been doing to gather feedback from workers and employers.

“The anxieties felt by our Singaporean workers towards an open and competitive labour market are real,” the former MP said. “They are merely asking for a level playing field and fair opportunities.”

Related topics

MOM workplace discrimination Tafep Jobs employer NTUC

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