As Singapore continues to evolve as a global business hub, ensuring fairness and inclusivity in the workplace has never been more critical. The upcoming Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL) 2024 aims to address these vital issues head-on, introducing robust legal frameworks to combat workplace discrimination and promote equitable treatment for all employees.

To provide deeper insights into these significant changes, we had the privilege of consulting with Francis Chan, Co-founder and Executive Director of Titanium Law Chambers, specializing in Employment and Commercial Litigation. In this interview, Francis shares his expertise on the key updates and implications of the WFL, offering valuable guidance for employers as they navigate this new landscape.

1. Can you provide an overview of the key updates or changes in the Workplace Fairness Legislation that have been implemented in 2024?

Francis: There is currently no law in Singapore that directly addresses workplace discrimination.  At present, we have the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TGFEP) which employers are supposed to follow. These guidelines set out principles of fair employment practices, and guidance to employers on conducting themselves fairly with reference to specific aspects of employment.  With an anti-workplace discrimination law, employers will now be subject to strict legal obligations not to discriminate in the workplace and to conduct themselves fairly towards employees and failing to do so can result in employers being brought to Court.

The proposed WFL has 4 key thrusts and they are:

  • Key thrust A – Strengthen protections against workplace discrimination
  • Key thrust B – Provisions to support business / organizational needs and national objectives
  • Key thrust C – Processes for resolving grievances and disputes while preserving workplace harmony
  • Key thrust D – Redress for victims of workplace discrimination and appropriate penalties for breaches

The exact provisions of the WFL have not been revealed and what we have is the final report of the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness setting out its recommendations on what the WFL should contain, subject to parliament’s acceptance.

The WFL focuses on outlawing workplace discrimination by (a) defining what discrimination is, (b) setting out the extent to which discrimination is prohibited and (c) what redress victims can seek in cases of discrimination. It also obliges employers to implement grievance handling processes and sets punishments for violations.

It must also be noted that the WFL will not replace the TGFEP but rather complement it. Employers must comply with the TGFEP and prepare for the eventual enactment of the WFL.

2. How do these updates affect employers in terms of their obligations and responsibilities towards ensuring fairness in the workplace?

Francis: Up till today, employers have been guided by the TGFEP on having fair employment practices in place.  This has all along been policed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP).  Errant firms have been placed on the MOM’s watchlist or debarred from applying for new work passes or renewing existing work passes.

Once the WFL comes into effect, employers will be under a strict positive obligation not to discriminate.  The tripartite committee has recommended a set of enforcement levers to be used based on the severity of the offence.  For example:

Low severity – Corrective orders to be issued by the MOM

Moderate severity – Administrative penalties to be imposed by the MOM

High severity – Organizations/Decision Makers may face court action by the MOM, larger financial penalties, and possible debarment of work pass privileges

Firms fully compliant with TGFEP need not be overly concerned, though they should familiarize themselves with WFL changes. Non-compliant firms should use 2024 to achieve full compliance before the WFL is enacted.

3. What are the specific provisions within the legislation that employers need to be particularly mindful of to remain compliant?

Francis: Employers should understand that discrimination is defined as making an adverse employment decision because of any protected characteristic.  A protected characteristic includes the following – age, nationality, gender, marital status, pregnancy status, caregiving responsibilities, race, religion, gender, disability, mental health conditions.  This means that an employer who rejects a job application simply because the candidate is too old, or female, or is of a certain race, without justification will be guilty of discrimination.

Employers also have to take note that the WFL covers all stages of employment from pre-employment, during employment and end-employment.

Employers should note that retaliating against employees who report workplace discrimination or harassment will be illegal. Prohibited actions include wrongful dismissal, denial of re-employment, salary deductions, deprivation of benefits, harassment, and any form of victimization.

4. In your opinion, what are some common misconceptions that employers might have about workplace fairness legislation, and how can they address these misconceptions?

Francis: One common misconception that employers have is that discrimination occurs only when there is intent such as a hiring manager consciously preferring candidates of a specific race. However, discrimination can be established even without intent if adverse employment actions result from a protected characteristic. Therefore, employers cannot escape responsibility by claiming ignorance or lack of intent. Both MOM and TAFEP analyze all relevant facts to determine if discrimination occurred under the legal definition.

Employers may mistakenly believe there are no consequences for discrimination unrelated to protected characteristics. However, it’s crucial for them to understand that workplace discrimination in any form will not be tolerated. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) retains the authority to hold employers accountable for discrimination, regardless of its basis.

5. How does the 2024 legislation address issues of discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and what steps should employers take to prevent and address such issues effectively?

Francis: Singapore has always adopted a zero-tolerance stance towards workplace discrimination and harassment. In essence, the expectations of employers under the WFL haven’t changed much from those under the TGFEP. The TGFEP already clearly outlines what constitutes inappropriate and unacceptable conduct by employers.

“The difference that we are looking at now with the WFL I think is that employers can be taken to task in a variety of ways for discriminatory conduct and harassment.  With this stricter regime, errant employers will hopefully be incentivized to clean up their act and treat employees fairly.” 

The first step that employers should of course take is to familiarize themselves with the TGFEP and the proposals made by the tripartite committee for the WFL provisions, and consider if existing policies and customs are compliant.  When in doubt, it is advisable for employers to consult a legal advisor. 

The next challenging step for employers is to raise internal awareness about workplace fairness and to tighten HR processes. This proactive approach reduces the chances of discrimination. Many companies emphasize fairness but fail due to inherent biases and inadequate HR protocols. Through comprehensive training and structured processes, discrimination can be minimized across all levels of seniority.

Harassment incidents are likely to drop once companies implement clear processes for handling complaints and taking disciplinary action. Making it clear that such conduct won’t be tolerated and that all cases will be dealt with fairly, regardless of who is involved, is crucial. Raising awareness is also key, as managers often don’t realize their behavior constitutes harassment. These are issues which I typically address during training sessions conducted for clients’ employees.

6. With the evolving nature of work arrangements, such as remote work and gig economy employment, how does the legislation adapt to ensure fairness across various types of employment relationships?

Francis: Many jobs are evolving rapidly, not only expanding in responsibilities and scope but also in how they can be performed. With the new WFL, employers must reassess existing roles and consider what truly remains essential for each position. For example, would a person being wheelchair bound genuinely pose any difficulty in the performance of the job?  If the answer is no, then employers should fairly consider that person for the role and not discriminate on the ground of that person’s physical disability.

Employers should also be aware of and familiarize themselves with the Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangement Requests which takes effect from 1 December 2024.  These guidelines set out the basic requirements for how such requests can be made, and how employers are expected to manage such requests.

7. Can you offer guidance on best practices for employers to create and maintain a culture of fairness and inclusivity in the workplace, in alignment with the new legislation?

Francis: Creating and maintaining anything positive within an organization is no easy task and amongst other things, requires commitment from all levels of management, but higher management should of course lead by example.

“ Culture is not simply trumpeting a desired value or outcome, but by planning and taking concrete steps to achieve it. Employees need to see that management is serious about having the “culture”. 

For example – employees often hear management talk about an “open door policy” or “please tell us if we are wrong or if you disagree, we want to hear it”.  But when feedback is actually given by employees, bosses or management don’t accept criticism or negative feedback well.  The result?  Employees refuse to give anymore feedback because they know that management does not mean what it says.

Management must consistently uphold their anti-discrimination and harassment policies to ensure they are more than just lip service. Failing to do so risks sending a message of insincerity to employees and potentially emboldening would-be perpetrators within the company.

8. What resources or support systems are available for employers to seek guidance or assistance in understanding and complying with the updated Workplace Fairness Legislation?

Francis: There are resources and guidance available on both the MOM and TAFEP websites on fair employment practices and some of these are quite comprehensive.  For companies who have never done a self-check on fair employment practices, this is a good starting point.

Employers should avoid blindly adopting templates and practices; fair employment practices must make business sense. Consulting HR and legal experts for custom documentation and training can help companies improve their frameworks or establish a starting point.

Building a Culture of Fairness: A Journey, Not a Destination

The 2024 WFL marks a turning point, but the journey towards a truly fair and inclusive workplace doesn’t end here. Partnering with legal experts like Francis Chan and actively engaging with the WFL are crucial first steps. However, fostering a culture of fairness requires ongoing commitment. Employers can achieve this through initiatives like diversity and inclusion training, open communication channels for employees to raise concerns, and regular reviews of hiring and promotion practices. By continuously striving for improvement, businesses can ensure they not only comply with the WFL but also create a workplace where all employees feel valued and respected, ultimately leading to a more engaged and productive workforce.

Feeling overwhelmed by the 2024 Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL)? Contact us today to discuss your specific business needs with our team of experienced HR professionals!

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