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Speech by Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Minister of State for Manpower, during the Adjournment Motion on Enhancing TAFEP to tackle workplace discrimination

1.           I would like to thank Mr Saktiandi and Mr Desmond Choo for speaking about this important issue.

 

MOM’s approach

 

2.           Our overarching goal is to develop fair and progressive employment practices within the backdrop of harmonious labour relations. This is key to companies wanting to do business in Singapore, which creates jobs in the first place. 

3.           In labour-constrained Singapore where we continue to create a surplus of jobs, businesses have a natural incentive to improve their employment practices.

4.           However, some employers may still lag behind with outdated practices.

5.           Let me be clear. Workplace discrimination, even in small pockets, is simply not acceptable. We must do everything we can to stamp it out.

 

A Tripartite Approach

 

6.           To this end, the Ministry of Manpower and our tripartite partners adopt a multi-pronged approach that:

a.           Actively promotes fair and progressive workplaces.

b.           Stays vigilant to detect and investigate all forms of workplace discrimination.

c.           Acts firmly against errant employers while helping them improve.

 

7.           The tripartite approach is important.

a.           It recognises that workplaces practices are shaped not by Government only, and certainly not through legislation alone as Mr Saktiandi acknowledged.

b.           Employers and unions all play a critical part. 

 

8.           Our measures include the Tripartite Standards, the Human Capital Partnership programme, and Tripartite Alliance Awards.

a.           These publicly recognise companies with fair, responsible and progressive employment practices.

 

9.           Mr Saktiandi suggested certifying age-inclusive companies.

a.           The Tripartite Standard on Age-Friendly Workplace Practices already does so.

b.           This includes:

         i. not using age as a selection criterion for recruitment and

         ii. designing jobs and workplaces to be age-friendly.

 

10.         TAFEP is the tripartite body that

a.           educates employers and workers on the merits of inclusive and progressive practices.

b.           issues Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, and

c.           investigates reports of workplace discrimination.

 

11.         The Guidelines are unambiguous on workplace discrimination. 

a.           They state that employers should “recruit and select employees on the basis of merit”. 

b.           To be clear, hiring a younger worker in itself may not reflect discrimination. The key is to consider employees based on merit, without discriminating on any measure including age, race, religion, gender, marital status, family responsibilities and disability.

c.           A younger worker should also be given a chance to prove his merit, even if he has less experience.

d.           Employers must also give fair consideration to Singaporeans.

 

12.         TAFEP is not all carrots and no stick.

a.           When TAFEP finds employers that fail to abide by the Guidelines, it works with MOM to take enforcement action, including curtailing work pass privileges.

b.           Over the last three years, MOM has taken enforcement action against about 900 errant employers for such infringements. 

 

Strong Enforcement against Discrimination

 

13.         One example concerns a marine engineering company. Our investigations found that it had rejected 20% of job applicants for no reason other than age.

a.           Mr Desmond Choo will be pleased to know that this company had their work pass privileges curtailed.

b.           They certainly did not think TAFEP or MOM was lenient.

c.           For six months, they had to deal with unhappy customers and potential liquidated damages for project delays.

 

Fair Consideration Framework

 

14.         MOM and TAFEP also take stern action through the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF).

 

15.         The FCF requires employers to fairly consider all jobseekers. In particular, Singaporeans should not be discriminated against.

16.         Under the FCF,

a.           Employers must advertise on the national Jobs Bank before submitting Employment Pass (EP) applications.

b.           This is to ensure that these job openings are made public, and not only to closed circles of friends.

c.           Employers that treat these advertisements as a “paper exercise” have been uncovered and taken to task.

d.           In fact, MOM and TAFEP have been improving the methods to detect and scrutinise suspicious employers.

e.           For example, TAFEP investigated a metal fabrication firm that applied for an EP for an Engineer role.

         i.  The employer required candidates to have a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. But this was not stated in the Jobs Bank posting.

         ii. The employer also disregarded a local candidate who had a Masters degree in Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and provided false information to TAFEP by claiming to have interviewed three other candidates. In fact, they had pre-selected the foreigner and did not interview anyone else.

         iii.  MOM rejected the EP application and debarred the employer from hiring new foreign workers for six months.

 

17.         MOM also proactively identifies firms with workforce profiles that suggest possible discrimination against Singaporeans,

a.           such as having an exceptionally high share of foreign PMETs compared to their industry peers,

b.           or extremely high concentration of a single foreign nationality.

c.           We place such employers on the FCF Watchlist and closely scrutinise their EP applications.

 

18.         Since 2016, we have placed about 600 firms across all sectors on the Watchlist.

a.           A total of 2,300 EP applications have been rejected or withheld by MOM, or withdrawn by employers.

b.           In addition, employers on the FCF Watchlist have hired more than 3,800 Singaporean PMETs to date.

c.           While MOM clamps down on their EP applications, TAFEP also engages the employers one-on-one to help them improve their HR practices and support local hiring.

d.           Of the 600 firms, TAFEP has helped 260 firms to improve and exit the Watchlist so far.

e.           Based on our experience, curtailing work privileges hits businesses where it hurts the most, as it affects their ability to hire.

f.            We also deal firmly with those who try to play games with us. For example, we have found employers on the Watchlist who use related entities to apply for EPs to bypass our controls. For such cases, we curtailed the work pass privileges of ALL the related entities.

 

Employment Pass policy

 

19.         Mr Saktiandi called for the EP policy to be tightened.

20.         MOM regularly reviews the EP salary criteria, taking reference from local PMET salaries at similar experience and seniority.

a.           This is to ensure that local PMETs are not disadvantaged based on cost as their salaries go up over time.

b.           To clarify, the minimum salary requirement of $3,600 applies to young graduates with good qualifications. An experienced EP holder in their mid-40s would need to earn much more to qualify, comparable to a similarly experienced local PMET.

c.           The EP salary requirements were last adjusted in 2017. As part of our regular process, we will review if they need to be updated to preserve a level playing field for local PMETs.

 

Outcomes

21.         Our multi-pronged approach has worked reasonably well.

 

Older worker employment

 

22.         Despite the employer tactics Mr Choo described, older worker employment has gone up steadily, as Mr Saktiandi shared.

a.           More older Singaporeans are employed today than ever before [over 500,000 today, compared to about 270,000 ten years ago]

 

23.         The unemployment rate for workers aged 50 and above has also been consistently lower than the overall rate.

24.         We expect even more older workers to be employed when the Retirement and Re-Employment Ages are raised to 65 and 70 by 2030.

 

Nationality-based discrimination

 

25.         The FCF Watchlist has also raised awareness and shifted employer behaviour.

26.         In fact, locals continue to hold the majority of jobs that companies can also hire EPs for

a.           In most sectors, locals hold around three in four of such jobs, except for Infocomm where the local share is about two-thirds.

b.           These ratios have held up in the last few years even as the workforce expanded. 

 

27.         I should add that our strong stance against favouring foreigners has not gone unnoticed.

a.           For example, in the recent Global Competitiveness Ranking by the World Economic Forum, Singapore was ranked 93rd in terms of ease of hiring foreign labour. In other words, business leaders who are able to compare foreign manpower regimes in different countries, see far more liberal regimes outside Singapore.

b.           As an international business hub, such perceptions carry some cost. If leading global companies think twice about investing in Singapore or rethink their future plans for Singapore, the result could be fewer good jobs for Singaporeans.   

 

28.         So it is a delicate balancing act.

a.           We should not take our economic competitiveness for granted and assume all the jobs will remain here if businesses find the manpower regime unfriendly.  

b.           In fact, in many countries, policies intended to protect workers have dampened job growth.

 

29.         Therefore, our FCF efforts must be tough yet targeted. 

30.         We must also continue to create good jobs and help more Singaporeans access them.

31.         In the Financial Services and Infocomm sectors, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) work closely with tripartite partners to help Singaporeans take up good jobs.

a.           For example, financial institutions have committed to reskill about 4,100 professionals under the Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) in the next two years, and to redeploy them in new or enhanced jobs.

b.           MAS is also helping more Singaporeans take up regional and global leadership positions.

c.           From 2016 to 2018, MAS supported about 700 Singaporeans through programmes to groom younger Singaporean talents, send promising Singaporeans for overseas postings, as well as deepen the finance leadership capabilities of senior Singaporean professionals.

i.            Many Singaporean finance professionals have progressed to take on larger roles within their companies.

d.           Similarly, IMDA has been working with employers, unions, training partners and industry associations to make job opportunities accessible for all.

e.           For example, the TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA) initiative helps to train and place Singaporeans into good ICT jobs, regardless of their academic or professional backgrounds.

f.            To date, over 81,000 training places have been taken up or committed under TeSA.

 

Localisation and Capability Transfer

 

32.         Mr Saktiandi also spoke about capability transfer, and called on businesses to step up in localising their workforce to support Singapore’s competitiveness and workforce sustainability. MOM supports his call.

33.         In fact, MOM introduced the Capability Transfer Programme (CTP) to support companies to transfer global expertise and capabilities to Singaporean workers.

a.           The results are encouraging. Since the start of CTP in 2017, more than 120 companies and 800 local workers are expected to benefit from CTP-supported projects.

b.           We will study Mr Saktiandi’s suggestion to expand the CTP, including how it can support companies that set localisation targets.

 

Conclusion

34.         To conclude, workplace discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. 

a.           In Singapore, the tripartite partners are fully committed to stamping out workplace discrimination together. I thank the NTUC for speaking and for their support of this motion.

b.           We welcome and look forward to more initiatives from the labour movement to tackle workplace discrimination of all forms, working with employers and workers. We need all hands on deck, #everyworkermatters.

 

35.         Our multi-pronged approach combines promotion of fair and progressive employment practices with a commitment to detect and act against errant employers. We will continue to build on it and improve.

36.         In doing so, let us also ensure that Singapore remains competitive, and redouble our efforts to help more locals access the good jobs that are created.