Anti-discrimination laws not a panacea for unfair employment practices: Tan See Leng

SINGAPORE – Anti-discrimination laws will not be a panacea for unfair employment practices, and an “overly prescriptive” approach risks pushing businesses overseas instead, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng on Saturday (July 10).

Dr Tan was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s recent comments calling for businesses to lobby the Government to pass anti-discrimination laws.

“(To say,) everything, let’s just legislate – I don’t think that will be the panacea”, said Dr Tan, speaking to reporters after attending a National Day Awards ceremony for Marine Parade GRC at Joo Chiat Community Centre.

That said, stiffer penalties may be adopted for employers who do not consider Singaporeans fairly for job opportunities, added Dr Tan, who is an MP for the GRC.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and and a tripartite work group are reviewing the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, and “it will not be long” before they come back with a firm recommendation, he said.

On Thursday, Mr Singh said that while the Workers’ Party supports the MOM’s Fair Consideration Framework in principle, it needs more teeth.

Employers who unfairly hire foreigners over Singaporeans are subjected only to administrative penalties, he said.

Speaking at an event organised by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) attended by about 50 members, Mr Singh said having anti-discrimination laws with statutory penalties would send a “powerful signal” for businesses to change how they recruit.

On Saturday, Dr Tan noted that Mr Singh was not the first parliamentarian to call for anti-discrimination laws.

Labour MP Saktiandi Supaat first mooted the idea sometime in 2010 and 2011, and many others including Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Louis Ng have reiterated those calls, he said.

He added that instead of introducing laws, MOM has taken a more nuanced approach by consulting and working with the unions and businesses.

In this regard, the Fair Consideration Framework allows MOM to identify firms that carry out unfair hiring practices and work with them to improve their processes.

Recalcitrant firms will have their work pass privileges suspended for between 12 and 24 months, and these make up a “small minority”, said Dr Tan.

“We do not want to be also seen as having a very, very prescribed framework that restricts (businesses),” said the minister.

“But what we are proposing is that as we open up our doors to the world, we also want to establish a fair, meritocratic-based system of progression for our Singaporean core, as well as for people who come and work,” he added.

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The framework is currently being reviewed to see what stiffer penalties can be adopted to take action against errant firms.

“But given the way that the industry is changing so rapidly, (if) you try to be too overly prescriptive, a lot of jobs can be offshored elsewhere as well.

“So we are also trying to make sure that we don’t inadvertently push businesses overseas… Perhaps in the short run we may seem to have some benefit but in the long run, we actually end up losing out. So it’s a very delicate balance,” said Dr Tan.

The minister also responded to Mr Singh’s comments in Parliament on Tuesday that the misunderstandings and unhappiness over the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) could have been avoided if the Government had released more information earlier.

Dr Tan said he does not feel that MOM is being “overly protective” of data.

“We share the data to the extent that it is relevant to the issues that are being raised,” he said, adding that the ministry releases data regularly in its labour market reports.

“Now, where do we draw in the line in data is where we have a responsibility to protect the sanctity of our security,” said Dr Tan.

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He added that providing a level of granularity on certain labour market information would compromise Singapore’s vulnerabilities.

“So if anything at all, perhaps we are very, very protective and we jealously guard this because our intent… has always been to protect our own people, our own country, and our own competitive advantage,” he said.

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