Employment Act must step up to protect women at work
“We shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers…You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children.” (Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in The Straits Times, 1983)
Thirty years later, it is important for us to reflect, as a society, if much has changed. In Singapore today, women remain the primary caregivers of the family. In spite of their participation in the labour market, women still bear most of the responsibilities for the home – caring for children, elderly and other dependent household members, preparing meals and doing other housework – all of this is unpaid, uncompensated for.
The “double shift” that working women have to perform is a great strain on many of them. Are we giving women enough support to pursue a career they desire and deserve? Women’s ability to rise as a leader in the workplace is also compromised because of the dual burden.
There are numerous impediments faced by women in the workforce or intending to join the workforce. These include the lack of flexible work, long hours, lack of access to childcare, and discrimination faced by single mothers and pregnant women. The government has to address these concerns if it intends to encourage women saddled with the dual burden of providing care for their families and working to remain in or re-enter the workforce.
Providing support for women to work, and making the workplace a safe, conducive environment for them, is critical to building a sustainable workforce and a mature society, where women have an equal voice and fair opportunities in the public sphere.
On top of this, there are many groups of working women who continue to be marginalised in Singapore – this includes foreign domestic workers, single moms and mothers returning to work after taking a few years off for childcare. Business goals cannot be allowed to impede labour rights.
In January 2013, AWARE submitted recommendations for Phase 1 of the proposed amendments to the Employment Act Review. This was done in response to an exercise carried out by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
Extended coverage for foreign domestic workers, pregnant workers and single moms
While AWARE commends MOM for some proposed changes, we note that there are gaps that still need to be addressed. Most significantly, the Employment Act (EA) still does not cover all members of the workforce in Singapore, such as those who are designated as ‘managers’ or ‘executives’.
Vulnerable groups such as foreign domestic workers are also excluded. This exclusion is not aligned with the State’s obligations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The UN CEDAW Committee has encouraged the State to ‘review and amend existing labour legislation so that it applies to foreign domestic workers, or adopt new legislation ensuring that foreign domestic workers are entitled to adequate ages, decent working condition, benefits and access to complaint and redress mechanisms.
AWARE thus strongly recommends that the EA cover all workers, regardless of position and salary earned, providing them basic protection. For foreign domestic workers, we suggest that the EA should impose limits on working hours and provisions on medical leave, annual leave and a more effective mandatory day-off policy.
Greater protection must also be given to pregnant employees, regardless of their marital status. While AWARE applauds the recent enhancement of the maternity protection to cover the full pregnancy period, this protection does not extend to all expecting mothers. Currently, single mothers who are employed in positions designated as ‘managerial’ or ‘executive’ are not entitled to any paid maternity leave.
There is also no guarantee that a working mother will be able to return to her exact position, without being terminated, after her return from maternity leave. AWARE thus recommends that there be a prohibition against any termination during an employee’s pregnancy, during her maternity leave, as well as three months after she returns to work from maternity leave. This job protection should also be extended to workers who have to take relatively long periods of leave due to physical conditions, such as recovering from illness or accidents.
For better work-life balance, AWARE recommends that confirmed employees have the right to ask for flexible work arrangements. The employer is obliged to give the request serious consideration and must have good business reason for declining any such requests. In addition, taking into account our ageing society, all employees should also be given two additional days leave to enable them to attend to health needs of elderly relatives, as per the practice in the civil service.
Protection against workplace sexual harassment
We are also advocating for zero tolerance for workplace sexual harassment. The EA has to be amended to provide for the following:
a) Explicit legal protection against sexual harassment
b) Affirmative duties for employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment
c) An administrative body to handle complaints and promote application of the law, in partnership with MOM
d) A wide range of civil remedies and sanctions.
Read the full text of AWARE’s submission here.