Committee of Supply (Speech 3) by Mr Hawazi Daipi, Senior Parliamentary Secretary , 13 February 2009, 5:30 PM, ParliamentBuilding Great Workplaces
1. Sir, the Acting Minister for Manpower has spoken comprehensively about our manpower strategies to deal with the current economic downturn as well as to address our long-term challenges. I shall elaborate on our efforts to enhance workplace standards and build progressive workplaces, both of which help maximise the potential of our workforce.
I - Safer Work For All
Raising WSH Standards
2. Let me first deal with the issue of workplace safety and health (or WSH). Over the past few years, my Ministry has made significant strides in raising WSH standards in Singapore, in collaboration with industry partners such as the WSH Council and the various industry associations.
3. The industry-led WSH Council has launched many efforts to improve safety outcomes since its formation in April 2008. The Council has led the way to establish appropriate WSH standards for the industry through publishing resources like technical advisories, compliance assistance checklists and guidelines. It administers two key initiatives targeted at SMEs: First, the Risk Management Assistance Fund helps SMEs defray the cost of consultancy projects to build in-house capabilities in risk assessment - some $4.6 million has been disbursed to companies to date. Meanwhile, bizSAFE is a five-step approach to raise SME's capabilities in managing WSH, and has garnered some 2000 participants to date. The Council has also launched numerous outreach initiatives to raise awareness of safety and health issues, targeting the general workforce and the public, WSH professionals, and top management.
4. The decline in the workplace fatality rate from 4.9 per 100,000 workers in 2004 to 2.8 in 2008 is a testament to these improved standards and initiatives. But definitely, we can do even better. In April 2008, Prime Minister announced a new national target to bring our workplace fatalities to less than 1.8 per 100,000 workers by 2018.
5. To achieve this target, my Ministry, together with the WSH Council, is drafting a new national plan for WSH, known as WSH 2018. We have consulted industry stakeholders on the specific proposals and initiatives under the plan. WSH 2018 will be unveiled in April at this year's National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign.
6. Let me give the House a flavour of what can be expected under WSH 2018. We will be developing and refining roadmaps for key sectors which have seen a relatively high number of accidents. This includes the marine and construction sectors, which have had several high-profile accidents recently. These roadmaps will outline strategies and initiatives tailored to address specific WSH challenges facing each sector. They will also include sectoral targets to help us track our progress. We also plan to raise safety standards in other less risky sectors. As MOM prepares to extend the Workplace Safety and Health Act to cover all workplaces, the tripartite network will help us in our outreach and other consultations.
Training of WSH Professionals
7. Growing the pool of WSH professionals is key to achieving our new WSH target. Our aim is to increase the number of WSH professionals, such as WSH Coordinators, Officers and Auditors, by 3,000 annually. This will give us a pool of some 19,000 WSH professionals by 2018.
8. The WSH Council has helped to develop a national Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) Competency Framework for WSH Professionals and for certain trades in the marine industry. We are now capitalizing on SPUR to increase the number of training places under the WSQ framework. We will be increasing the capacity of our training courses for WSH Representatives and Coordinators to 2,000. Not only will this allow us to help existing WSH professionals upgrade their skills and qualifications; it also provides many good career opportunities to people looking to enter the profession.
9. On the role of safety officers, currently, workplaces in riskier sectors such as the marine, construction, manufacturing and oil and petrochemicals industries must appoint a workplace safety and health officer. His role is to assist employers to identify and assess risks at the workplace and work processes, and to recommend measures to reduce these risks.
10. However, risk management is effective insofar as the recommendations to reduce risk are properly implemented. While the safety officer does play a role in the proper implementation of risk management measures, workers and their supervisors on the ground must also do their part in ensuring safety outcomes. Therefore, one of the key thrusts of WSH 2018 is building a progressive and pervasive safety culture, by emphasising the individual's responsibility for ensuring his own safety and those around him.
First Aid Training
11. On the enhancement of first aid training in the workplace, under the Workplace Safety and Health Act, employers are required to develop and implement emergency response procedures, including first-aid facilities. The WSH (First-Aid) Regulations requires all factories, airports, ships in harbours and laboratories to put in place first aid facilities and measures such as the appointment and training of first-aiders. These are workplaces where first-aid assistance is more likely to be needed, and for which it makes more sense to prescribe the minimum first-aid facilities and measures to be provided.
12. First-aiders in these workplaces can range from industrial nurses to rank and file workers. They must undergo an Occupational First-Aid Course approved by MOM which includes training in CPR but not in Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) skills. MOM however, welcomes the suggestion to do so and will explore this when we next review the requirements of the first-aid course.
II Fair and Progressive Workplace Practices
(A) Work-Life Excellence & Flexible Work Arrangements
Flexi-Works! and WoW! Fund
13. Regarding the employment of older workers and women during the current recession, we have made good progress on this front. The improvement in employment rate in 2008 resulted mainly from older workers and females taking up employment.
14. To help companies improve their workplaces to better meet the needs of older workers, women and other workers, we currently have two funding programmes. The first is the Work-Life Works or WoW! Fund, which helps employers introduce work-life measures at the workplace, with a focus on flexible work arrangements. The second is Flexi-Works!, which is targeted at bringing economically inactive individuals back to the workforce by encouraging companies to offer them part-time employment or other flexible work arrangements.
15. Employers and workers will be happy to hear that with effect from 1 March 09, we will enhance both programmes. We will double the maximum grant from WoW! Fund from $10,000 per company to $20,000. We will also extend Flexi-Works! for another year, with a budget of $3 million, and lower the qualifying age of recruited workers from 35 to 30 years of age, in order for the company to be eligible for the grant. We hope that this will encourage companies to recruit more women who may have left the workforce but seek to return before the age of 35.
16. As both programmes help enable companies to implement flexible work arrangements, the Flexi-Works! and WoW! Fund will be streamlined as part of the enhancements in March. The two programmes will share a common first tranche funding of $10,000 for employers to provide flexible work arrangements. Subsequently, applicants can either apply for an additional $10,000 under the WoW! Fund to develop integrated Work-Life processes, or tap on Flexi-Works! for an additional $90,000 to recruit and retain economically inactive persons above the age of 30, or both.
Step Out For Change
17. My Ministry also supports other initiatives geared towards encouraging the employment of women. The Tripartite Workgroup on Enhancing Employment Choices for Women, led by Mdm Halimah Yacob of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), has successfully placed more than 2,300 women in jobs over the past year. The "Step Out For Change" programme was launched in July last year to help women return to work. Through workshops on personal effectiveness and confidence building, this programme has already benefited 167 participants to date.
18. As we recognise the contributions of women in the workplace, we also recognise the role of fathers at home. I agree that parenting is a shared responsibility and that fathers play an important role in raising children. Therefore, the government has already put in place measures to allow working fathers to spend more time with their children, including raising childcare leave from two to six days, and introducing six days of unpaid infant care leave as part of the enhanced Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) package. These are generous additions to the leave entitlements of working fathers, from two days to up to 12 days of leave per year under the new package.
19. There is a suggestion that the Government also allow parents the flexibility to apportion their leave entitlements. However, this would contribute to manpower uncertainty for employers as they would not know how many days of leave each parent intends to take. This would ultimately add to business costs for employers and I would caution against imposing an additional burden on employers in this current economic climate.
20. We believe that the recently introduced M&P measures are sufficient for now, but the Government will study the impact of the package and periodically refine our M&P policies with feedback from stakeholders.
(B) Responsible Employment Practices
21. In this downturn, concerns have been raised that local workers should be treated fairly and responsibly. I would like to remind companies of their obligations to their workers under existing agreements.
22. There has been a suggestion to cover executives earning more than $2,500 in the Employment Act. We have just amended and implemented amendments to the Employment Act from 1 January 2009, which allowed executives earning up to $2,500 a month to pursue salary claims at the Labour Court at MOM. We will monitor the developments and consider at a later stage the suggestion to include executives earning more than $2,500. Notwithstanding this, executives who earn more than $2,500 could still make use of the Ministry's conciliation services to settle their salary disputes with their employers.
(C) Protecting Contract Workers
23. As the economy slows down, we will also need to do more for low-wage and vulnerable workers, who are likely to be most affected by the downturn. The pool of resident employees on term contracts has increased by 4.9% since 2007 to 189,100 in 2008. They formed 12.4% of all resident employees.
24. Contract employees are already covered under the CPF Act, Employment Act and other employment laws. In line with the general trend for shorter employment tenures, the Ministry amended the Employment Act to reduce the qualifying period for maternity leave and sick leave.
25. Since the employment standards of some low-wage contract workers are tied to outsourcing contracts, the Tripartite Committee on CPF and Work Related Benefits for Low-wage Workers released a "Tripartite Advisory on Responsible Outsourcing Practices" in March last year to enhance these standards. Since its launch, MOM, NTUC and SNEF have been actively promoting the adoption of the Advisory to over 1000 employers, service buyers, managing agents and labour suppliers. MOM has also been helping Town Councils and other public sector agencies to implement responsible outsourcing practices. Moving ahead, we will extend our outreach to other private sector companies.
26. MOM and CPF Board regularly remind employers and employees on their obligations to comply with rules on CPF contributions and statutory employment rights and benefits. This includes newsletters published in major newspapers to inform the public of rules under the CPF and Employment Act governing the payment of salaries, CPF contributions, leave and overtime.
27. MOM and CPF Board take a serious view of the late payment of salaries and non-payment of CPF contributions, and non-compliance with statutory employment benefits, and have stepped up enforcement efforts. In 2008, MOM prosecuted 24 employers for Employment Act violations, while CPF Board prosecuted 218 errant employers and officers of companies. Between January 2007 and September 2008, CPF Board's audit efforts led to close to 48,000 informal workers being converted to formal employment, which enabled them to receive CPF contributions.
28. On whether contract workers would be able to benefit from the various employment assistance programmes offered by the Government, I would like to assure that contract workers are not disadvantaged in this regard. As mentioned by the Acting Minister for Manpower, we have in fact made it easier for workers, including contract workers, to qualify for the Special Payment under the Workfare Income Supplement (or WIS) scheme, on top of the regular WIS payments they will receive. Contract workers are also eligible for training opportunities offered by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA), including SPUR courses.
III - Foreign Worker Management
(A) Preventing Mistreatment of Foreign Workers (FWs)
29. I will now turn to the management of foreign workers. To minimise the incidence of foreign workers being unfairly treated by employers, my Ministry is tackling the issue on several fronts: education, enforcement and social support.
30. First, education. Like local workers, foreign workers working in Singapore, except those in domestic work, are also protected under the Employment Act. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act also requires employers to provide acceptable accommodation and medical care for their workers. We have increased awareness on basic labour rights and sources of help through several channels, such as distributing a handbook to new workers in their native language, and organising regular dormitory roadshows to educate workers beyond workplace safety and health issues. Workers from the construction and marine sectors are also educated on their rights at orientation courses upon arrival in Singapore.
31. Second, enforcement. To prevent exploitation of workers, MOM imposes measures in the work pass approval process to minimise the possibility of workers being brought in without jobs. For instance, construction and marine companies, including subcontractors, need to show documentary proof that they have on-going projects before Work Permits are issued. If employers face an unexpected project cancellation or delay, they should terminate the workers' contracts and facilitate their repatriation after ensuring that all outstanding employment issues have been resolved.
32. To prevent employers from reneging on their salary obligations, my Ministry has put in place early intervention measures to detect non-payment of salaries. For example, MOM monitors employers who default on levy payments, and works with housing operators to gather information on employers who default on their rental payments. MOM is also stepping up inspections at foreign workers' dormitories to ensure that acceptable accommodation and the needs of workers are being taken care of, and to check if they face salary arrears problems. MOM checked some 800 premises for unacceptable accommodation last year.
33. If a worker makes a valid salary claim, MOM will step in to help them recover their outstanding salaries. I wish to assure that the government does not send foreign workers home before their cases are resolved. If the case is more complex and cannot be resolved within seven days after permit cancellation, the worker is allowed to stay in Singapore under a Special Pass to resolve his claim. MOM has an arrangement with the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority such that should the employer attempt to send the foreign worker with outstanding employment issues home usually through a repatriation company, the foreign worker can inform the immigration officer. The worker will not be sent home and will be referred to MOM for assistance.
34. My Ministry will investigate and take action against errant Singapore employment agencies and employers who flout our laws and regulations. To illustrate a recent case, MOM will be pursuing charges against marine company Tipper Corp for the illegal deployment of their workers as well as for failure to pay salary to the workers. The House may recall that the penalty for non-payment of salaries under the Employment Act has been increased to $5,000 per charge for first-time offenders since January this year for greater deterrence. The penalties for offences under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act were also recently raised in 2007. MOM can also debar errant employers from hiring foreign workers. This debarment will also apply to any company in which the employer is involved. This is not just the company but also the employers.
35. I have also been asked if the government can do more to regulate the agents used to bring in foreign workers. MOM currently revokes the licenses of local employment agencies who flout the licence conditions, for example by offering kickbacks to employers for the employment of a foreign worker. Such employment agencies will also lose their security deposit of up to $20,000. The Employment Agencies Act also dictates caps on the amount that workers and employers can be charged for placement. Many Singapore employers or employment agencies also use the services of foreign agents to conduct their recruitment in source countries. However, it is difficult for MOM to determine that a particular overseas employment agency has been involved in a particular Work Permit application, or to control their actions, since the recruitment process takes place outside our jurisdiction.
36. It has been rightly pointed out earlier that the root cause of foreign worker woes often lies in the countries of origin. My Ministry will continue to engage embassies of labour source countries to resolve problems faced by their nationals working in Singapore and to safeguard their well-being. We share with these embassies relevant information obtained during the course of investigations, including information on employment agencies in source countries who may be exploiting workers. The embassies can disseminate this information to the relevant authorities back home so that action can be taken against the errant parties in the source countries, and so that their nationals can be educated on how to avoid falling victim to scams. However, the House must be aware that there are limits to what MOM can realistically achieve in a foreign jurisdiction.
37. Third, social support. My Ministry strongly supports the efforts of NTUC and SNEF, who have jointly set up the Migrant Workers Forum to be ready by April. The Forum aims to develop a social support infrastructure for foreign workers and promote good employment practices towards foreign workers. There will be a contact point and a hotline to ensure that foreign workers have access to advice on employment rights and how to seek help if they need it. Where MOM's mediation is sought, the Migrant Workers Forum will refer cases to the Ministry for help. The Forum will take an active role in providing humanitarian assistance so that workers are not left stranded with no food or shelter. They will also be organising basic training in areas like English and social activities to help foreign workers live in this country in harmony with our citizens. The Forum will also seek feedback from employers about foreign worker management issues.
(B) Enhancing the Well-Being of Foreign Domestic Workers
38. My Ministry is also committed to safeguarding the well-being of foreign domestic workers in Singapore. As part of the Work Permit conditions, employers are responsible for the well-being of their domestic workers, including the provision of adequate rest and day(s) off in accordance with the employment contract.
39. Since 2006, all accredited employment agencies have been required to use a standard employment contract for their FDWs, stipulating a minimum of one rest day per month. Should the FDW prefer to work during her rest day, the standard contract requires employers to compensate an agreed amount in cash. Employment agencies who do not meet the accreditation criteria, including the use of this standard contract, will not be allowed to renew their licenses.
40. MOM encourages employers to grant FDWs rest days regularly if possible. However, our current approach of not mandating a fixed number of rest days per month for FDWs recognises the unique nature of domestic work. Households that have, for example, elderly or disabled family members who require constant attention may find it difficult to release the FDW for a prescribed period every month. Some FDWs may have other arrangements for daily rest periods or prefer to receive additional compensation over having a rest day. Therefore, allowing households to work out an employment arrangement with their FDWs is a more flexible approach.
41. Our efforts in building progressive workplaces will enable our labour market to be better positioned to meet the challenges of the changing economy in the long term. While we need to ensure that basic standards of employment such as safety and health are complied with, we also need to put in place fair and progressive employment practices, which continue to be important in times of uncertainty like this, as well as a well-managed foreign workforce. If we can achieve all of these, I am confident that we will be able to make Singapore a great place to work.
Factsheet on Flexi Works!
Factsheet on WoW Fund
Factsheet on Migrant Worker Forum
Last Updated on 13 February 2009