October 25th, 2013

‘Fair employment’ must go beyond nationality

By Corinna Lim and Jolene Tan

Employment must be fair. This simple imperative lies at the heart of the Fair Consideration Framework recently announced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The new policy takes aim against nationality- based discrimination in employment decisions. But its implications go far beyond the single lens of citizenship.

diversity1Two important principles underlie this new framework. The first is the Government’s implicit understanding that in order to tackle discriminatory employers, it is not enough to leave the market to itself. Proactive intervention, through both legislation and ongoing administrative monitoring, is necessary to stamp out problematic human resources practices and ensure all employees are treated fairly. Moreover, as the Government has acknowledged, such safeguards are compatible with maintaining a dynamic and competitive economy.

Second, the Government’s approach recognises that mandating formal processes can produce shifts in business culture. The specific mechanisms of a job bank and MOM scrutiny are not ends in themselves. Rather, they give structure and force to a wider change in employer mindset. “Fair consideration” is to be a pervasive ethos informing every level of corporate decision-making.

These insights deserve wider application. After all, employment discrimination takes many forms – besides nationality, job- seekers and workers may receive unfair treatment due to their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, disability and religion. Consider the cases of pregnant employees dismissed without sufficient cause, or the complaints of older workers who feel stigmatised.

Aware’s helpline regularly receives complaints of workplace discrimination based on gender, including sexual harassment. Our 2008 survey of 500 people found that 54 per cent of respondents had experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment, and that 79 per cent of these victims were female. This suggests that many people in Singapore experience work environments that, far from embodying “fair employment”, are explicitly hostile to and unsafe for women.

As a state party to the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Singapore has a particular duty to remedy this situation.

The Fair Consideration Framework can serve as a starting point for a holistic initiative to end all forms of employment discrimination in Singapore. The central plank of this would be a single comprehensive statute prohibiting all forms of employment discrimination. Compliance could be monitored and enforced by a specialised administrative body, with complaints of infringement heard by a tribunal with specific expertise.

The experience of the United States shows that piecemeal law-making, targeting first one kind of discrimination and then another, generates uncertainty and inconsistency. For example, different levels of protection may be provided against different types of discrimination at various stages of the recruitment process for no clear reason. The Singapore Government has a valuable opportunity to ensure that the country’s legislation is thoroughly and coherently drafted, and that it addresses all types of discrimination at once, not just nationality.

In particular, organisations should be legally required to adopt formal procedures for resolving workplace sexual harassment complaints. Currently, employers may ignore such incidents altogether. This leaves complainants few options other than criminal charges or civil suits, which are unnecessarily punitive and cumbersome. The law can play an important role in developing a business culture that deals with harassment not by assigning blame but by mandating that employers and employees work together to end it.

Finally, as Aware recommended as part of the Employment Act review, the fundamental protections of the Act should be extended to all workers equally. “Managers and executives” and “domestic workers” should not be excluded. Nor should the Act distinguish between “employees” and “workmen”. The Fair Consideration Framework’s move to specifically protect higher-income PMEs signals a welcome shift from the traditional view that these workers have sufficient bargaining power to obviate the need for legislative protection.

While discussing the need to be “fair to Singaporeans”, it is important to remember that neither citizens nor non-citizens are homogenous groups. Fixing attention on nationality is a start. But we must go further to consider other forms of discrimination if we are to provide truly fair employment to all workers.

Corinna Lim is Aware’s executive director, and Jolene Tan is the association’s programmes and communications senior manager.

This article was originally published in the Straits Times on 25 October 2013.

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