Time to get tough on unfair treatment at work

Time to get tough on unfair treatment at work

Employers, human resource professionals, academics and other experts are gathering at a conference tomorrow to discuss how to promote fair employment practices in Singapore.

Organised by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep), among others, it hopes to spread the word on best practices and will be opened by Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin.

Many developed economies - including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong - have laws to promote fair employment and protect workers who feel they have been discriminated against.

Barring some limited provisions - such as those protecting women and older workers from being fired because of their pregnancy or age - Singapore has no laws on workplace discrimination.

Instead, it believes in what Tafep refers to as a "promotional and educational approach" - getting companies to understand what is fair and stick to it.

Indeed, conferences, training, advocacy and sharing of best practices are the Republic's preferred way of promoting fairness in the workplace.

This approach is undoubtedly beneficial for companies. But it is not clear if it has helped workers receive the protection they deserve if they find it difficult to get jobs, are unable to get promoted or are fired because of prejudice, rather than performance.

Complaints to Tafep, the go-to body for employment discrimination cases, are on the rise.

Despite not having legal powers to investigate cases or take errant employers to task, Tafep received 303 complaints last year, up from 115 two years earlier. In 2007, a year after it was set up, it received only nine complaints.

Half of the complaints last year concerned nationality, followed by age, race and language.

The numbers may well be the tip of the iceberg, as some workers say that with no specific anti-discrimination laws, complaining is a waste of time.

The Government has long maintained that having such laws could make the labour market more rigid, increase business costs and erode Singapore's economic competitiveness.

But aside from Singapore, all the top 10 economies on the latest Global Competitiveness Report have anti-discriminatory laws in place, although Switzerland, which tops the list, just ahead of Singapore at No. 2, has fewer such provisions than some other European countries.

But such laws have not hurt the global competitiveness of the others on the list - Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Japan.

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