March 11th, 2014

Harassment Bill: Employers should be involved

AWARE emailed Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin on 10 March 2014. The email is reproduced here.

 

Dear Minister,

office1Last November, you stated that no workplace sexual harassment (“WSH”) can be tolerated.  With the Protection from Harassment Bill reflecting governmental recognition that WSH is a significant problem, we urge you to announce that you will introduce a legal obligation for employers to address WSH.

On 9 March, in the Straits Times, journalist Radha Basu noted that all ten victims of WSH she spoke to were “disappointed” with their companies’ responses to their complaints.  This has also been our experience of WSH cases.  Voluntary TAFEP guidelines are insufficient – employers must be required to take action.

The Fair Consideration Framework shows the Ministry’s ability to intervene in business decision-making to ensure equitable workplaces.  We ask you to act on your stated commitment to gender equality by taking decisive anti-WSH action.

Lately the Government has emphasised productivity.  WSH damages productivity and morale, and generates turnover costs (e.g. victims leave firms, often without employers knowing why).  It is in Singapore’s economic interests to mandate anti-WSH policies, though employers wrongly emphasise their short-term costs over the long-term benefits.

Mandatory employer responsibility for WSH has clear advantages over leaving workers to seek Protection Orders (“POs”) and/or damages under the Bill:

1. It is more in line with Singapore’s values of fairness.
You have emphasised that businesses must not cut corners on safety to increase profits.  This also applies to WSH.  Employers benefit from requiring co-worker collaboration and should be responsible for safe workplace environments.

2. It is better at preventing WSH from occurring in the first place.
Legal remedies often seem remote to ordinary people.  Employer WSH policies made known to all workers and pro-actively integrated into organisations will be much more effective in fostering an atmosphere of zero tolerance for WSH.

3. It offers a more effective and accessible way of addressing WSH cases.
WSH perpetrators are often in more senior positions than victims, who hesitate to seek legal remedies without assurance that they will not be victimised for it (e.g. terminated).  Police action in response to a PO breach is cumbersome, where a company can take swift, straightforward measures.

4. It is less costly for society.
Employer processes are less time- and resource-intensive than court processes, however simplified.  In practice, ensuring compliance with a PO against a co-worker will usually require employer involvement.  This creates a duplicative system where cases are assessed first by the state and then again by businesses.  It is more efficient to mandate employer investigation, reserving state action for cases where employer inaction makes it necessary.

5. It is ultimately better for businesses.
Businesses benefit when WSH disputes are resolved without escalation.  Staff relations will be unnecessarily damaged by employees seeking POs and lawsuits, rather than resolving complaints through an internal grievance process, which is likely to be less polarising, and more constructive and future-oriented.

For these reasons, we urge you to take this valuable opportunity to announce that you will require employers to do their part to tackle a serious social problem which the Government has committed to addressing.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you should require further information.

Yours sincerely,
Corinna Lim
Executive Director, AWARE

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