Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The flaw is no law

Singapore News // Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The flaw is no law

Unlike legal codes, guidelines lack teeth to free workers from discrimination • News Comment
Derrick A Paulo

When it comes to fighting labour discrimination, Singapore prefers to tread lightly.

The latest sequel to the trilogy on combating workplace discrimination — following the update of the 1999 guidelines on job advertisements, a code for responsible employment practices in 2002, and guidelines for pro-family practices in 2004 — is yet another set of guidelines.

Race, religion, gender and marital status are all "don'ts" for job application forms, according to guidelines issued two weeks ago by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices. These, however, are only "practical" tips for bosses, as the alliance said. Once again, legislation will not be introduced.

But shouldn't it be introduced, in order to better deal with the problem of discrimination?

The planned Tripartite Centre for Fair Employment is designed to advise employers keen to adopt such practices — in other words, the converted. The same type of employers as the 420 so far, including 59 from the public sector, that have pledged to implement fair employment practices.

It is easy to preach to the converted. But what about the remaining 133,000 small and medium-sized enterprises?

While the 180 employment-related discrimination cases that the Manpower Ministry (MOM) received in the past three years is not an excessively large number in a labour force of more than 2 million, job discrimination appears to be on the rise.

The incidence of pregnant workers complaining of unfair dismissal has doubled since three years ago. In all probability, there is a fair number of silent sufferers out there who chose not to, or did not know how to, lodge a complaint.

A survey last year by global staffing solutions firm Kelly Services ranked Singapore one of the three countries, out of 28, with the highest rates of workplace discrimination. Two-thirds of the 1,500 respondents polled here complained of having experienced prejudice of some sort when applying for a job in the past five years. They cited age as the top factor (29 per cent).

Even if these are mere perceptions, the bulk of which an MOM investigation could well find to be unsubstantiated, they affect the sustainability of Singapore's social stability, which can only need more attention, especially since our population of 4.5 million is set to grow.

Singaporeans should not have to look at the job market — and their career prospects — through the lens of discrimination. When Singaporeans are sent the proper signals of assurance that there will be a fair deal at the workplace, foreigners are also more likely to get a warmer welcome and their contributions valued more.

If all the authorities do is exhort employers, promote programmes and set up one centre, their efforts can only go so far. Legislation can help, if we can be flexible, creative and selective.

During the Committee of Supply debate in March, Nominated Member of Parliament Eunice Olsen suggested using a voluntary compliance agreement (VCA) to change unfair hiring practices.

A VCA is a mechanism now used to tackle unfair trading practices under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act. When errant traders sign a VCA, they admit to carrying out unfair trading practices, agree to stop such practices, and make the necessary remedies to affected consumers.

Only refusal to do so or a breach of the VCA gives the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) the option to seek a ruling from the courts. And penalties apply only when a company incurs the court's contempt by failing to adhere to its ruling.

Replace trader with employer, Case with MOM or an equal employment panel, and consumer with employee to get a helpful piece of legislation to fight job discrimination.

Current legislation, such as section 14 of the Employment Act and the Retirement Age Act, provides only avenues for workers to seek redress for unfair dismissal or job termination based on age, respectively.

The MOM can also take up cases to seek individual remedies, but this is certainly not the best way to empower a state to effect sustainable, long-term change.

An employment VCA will help. It is more likely to get employers with unfair practices to stick out like a sore thumb than if 0.003 per cent of companies — or more — pledge to be fair employers.

"This is about educating employers and having the teeth to back it up … And it is done without incurring frivolous legal claims, as only MOM, after a fair assessment, can take legal action," Ms Olsen said. She suggested homing in on hiring practices before deciding if the VCA is suitable for discrimination in training prospects, promotion benefits and retrenchment bias.

There was no reply to her suggestion. Instead, we were told about guidelines, the tripartite centre and pledges.

If such measures are enough to enact sustainable change, why do we not depend solely on persuasion, such as in intellectual property, to uphold IP protection? Why have coercive laws to deter infringements and piracy?

It is not about the numbers. The Government is drafting laws to make sex with minors overseas a prosecutable offence here, even though only three Singaporeans have been caught since 1994 for such acts.

The answer is simple. When applied to fair employment, not to legislate is to close an eye to discriminatory practices.

What's your view? Email us at


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