Mediation a 'first, necessary' step to tackle workplace discrimination, even with new laws on horizon: Koh Poh Koon

SINGAPORE – About two-thirds of reported cases of workplace discrimination are not substantiated, and the majority of these are misunderstandings that are subsequently clarified and not pursued further by either party.

Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon revealed this in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 14) as he noted that the Government would continue to emphasise mediation as a first and necessary step, even as it moves to enshrine fair employment guidelines in law.

Dr Koh’s reply to MPs came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally that guidelines under the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) would form the basis for anti-discrimination laws, with a tribunal set up to tackle workplace discrimination across gender, age, race, religion and disability.

“If there is a complaint, Tafep uses these guidelines to evaluate and advise the parties,” said Dr Koh. “Where Tafep finds gaps in the employer’s HR (human resources) practices, Tafep would counsel the employer. Most employers accept and make amends.”

Very rarely does the employer dispute the assessment and refuse to correct its actions, he added.

The mediation process in itself is therefore an opportunity for employers and employees to close gaps in their understanding of requirements, he said.

Dr Koh also addressed concerns raised by Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) and Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) over the possibility of the new laws fostering a litigious workplace culture.

He stressed that going to the tribunal should be a last resort – an approach similar to how salary-related and wrongful dismissal cases are dealt with through conciliation and mediation at the first instance.

A tripartite committee set up in July to examine policy options for workplace fairness – including laws – aims to complete its work in the first half of 2022. The Government will then consider its recommendations and, if these are accepted, start work to prepare legislation, said Dr Koh.

In the meantime, both the fair employment watchdog and Manpower Ministry will continue to ensure that existing guidelines for fair and merit-based workplace practices are practised and upheld, he added.

Since its formation in 2006, Tafep had set out to avoid a legalistic or confrontational process to handling workplace discrimination, favouring education and the amicable resolution of disputes instead, Dr Koh said.

He said the upcoming legislation would build on this current approach and broaden the range of remedies available to the benefit of both workers and employers.

“For workers, the remedies could give them direct redress, rather than indirectly through enforcement action against the employer,” he said. “For employers, curtailment of their work pass privileges, which has a significant impact on their overall business operations, can in some cases be disproportionate to the breach. Even if there is some mitigating factor, there are currently no alternative penalties that could provide for a more calibrated approach.

“Legislation will also send a strong signal that society does not condone discrimination at the workplace, and further entrench the fair employment standards that we have built up over the years.”

Dr Koh also said that about one in seven reported cases in each of the last three years was in the category of gender discrimination.

Most of these related to employers specifying a gender preference in their recruitment advertisements. About 30 per cent of the cases eventually led to the work pass privileges of the errant employers being curtailed.

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At the same time, he noted that anxieties over workplace discrimination could also be driven by perceptions. “Not every complaint means that the employer has done something wrong. The process must be fair to both the worker and the employer,” he said.

“By adopting an even-handed approach, we can avoid a situation where employers are deterred by excessive legal compliance to further expand their businesses.”

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