Forum Reply: Stronger protection against harassment, robust steps to support victims
We refer to the commentary by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) “Harassment in the workplace and the problem with some employers” (Sept 6).
The Government does not tolerate any form of workplace harassment. A nationally representative survey by the Ministry of Manpower shows that the proportion of resident employees who reported having encountered workplace harassment in 2022 was 5.4 per cent. This figure is lower than the average of European countries, but any case of workplace harassment is one too many.
Tripartite partners have put in place the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment since 2015, which guides employers to proactively identify, evaluate and control the risk of harassment at the workplace to ensure a safe, healthy and harmonious workplace.
In addition, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) has robust measures in place to support victims of workplace harassment.
When Tafep receives a harassment complaint, it will ask the employer to carry out an independent investigation. This will include interviewing affected parties and witnesses and reviewing documented evidence. The employer is required to update Tafep on the disciplinary actions taken against the harasser if the report were found to be true, and to address the victim’s concerns.
Where there are shortcomings in an employer’s policies and processes, Tafep works with the employer to put in place proper harassment prevention policies and procedures that are aligned with the tripartite advisory. Employers engaged by Tafep to look into workplace harassment reports have been cooperative and have taken the necessary corrective measures in line with the advisory.
In 2019, Tafep set up the Workplace Harassment Resource and Recourse Centre, which provides dedicated support to victims of workplace harassment. Aware also flags such cases to Tafep for help and follow-up.
The upcoming Workplace Fairness Legislation will provide stronger protection against discrimination and harassment. Employers will be required to implement proper grievance handling process at the workplace, and will be prohibited from retaliating against those who report workplace discrimination or harassment. The Government will continue to review our overall framework for workplace discrimination and harassment to strengthen its effectiveness.
We urge individuals who face harassment at the workplace to approach Tafep or the police for advice and assistance.
Lee Chung Wei
Divisional Director, Workplace Policy and Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower
Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices
Harassment in the workplace and the problem with some employers, 6 Sept 2023, The Straits Times
We must hold employers accountable for toxic workplace environments that allow harassment to fester.
Amy (not her real name) was consistently harassed by her manager with name-calling.
When her salary was not paid on time, she raised this issue with him during a meeting. The manager was visibly upset, and then proceeded to punch her in the face without any provocation.
When this was brought to the attention of the owner of the company, he refused to take any action against the perpetrator, even after viewing CCTV footage of the incident. He merely claimed that “the company is not responsible”.
Jacintha (not her real name) is a second client seen by the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (Aware) Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory (WHDA) service. She was looking for advice and help after her direct supervisor incessantly sent her unwanted messages professing his love and sending her “a million kisses”. When she reported these unwanted advances to the human resources (HR) department, she was brushed aside. Despite having seen the messages, HR told her that it was his way of showing her care and concern, and that his behaviour was “normal”.
THE PROBLEM WITH WORKPLACE HARASSMENT
Workplace harassment in Singapore is becoming increasingly problematic. The 2019 Kantar Inclusion Index revealed that almost one in four Singapore employees had been bullied at the workplace in the past year – the highest percentage across the 14 countries surveyed.
Harassment does not occur in a vacuum. It thrives in toxic and unsafe work environments. Workplaces that do not have proper grievance handling procedures, workplace harassment policies and compulsory training create unsafe conditions for employees where unhealthy and bad behaviours like harassment can occur and even be tolerated.
However, having procedures and policies in place alone will not be the answer to this issue if they are not actively enforced.
Another WHDA client, Maya (not her real name), was sexually harassed by the chief executive officer of her company during a lunch meeting, where he touched her inappropriately multiple times. When she shared this with HR, the HR director questioned if she was wearing a low-cut dress at the time of the incident. Maya was also told that the perpetrator was a “gentleman” who could not have sexually harassed her. There was no formal investigation into this matter.
Her experience is far from an isolated one. Four in 10 of respondents said they had been subjected to some form of workplace sexual harassment within the previous five years, according to a 2021 Aware-Ipsos survey.
This figure is likely to be larger when we know sexual harassment is consistently and severely under-reported. Only three in 10 of victim-survivors in the Aware-Ipsos survey went on to report their experiences, half of whom were met with negative responses from HR and colleagues.
Most chose not to report for various reasons, including fear that they would not be believed, fear of impact on their reputation or career, and fear of retaliation. Some did not believe their employer would take any action and in some cases, the employer did not have any grievance procedures. Similar sentiments were echoed in the 2021 Aware report, I Quit: Career And Financial Effects Of Workplace Sexual Harassment On Women In Singapore.
POOR EMPLOYER RESPONSE
Employers enable an environment where harassment is condoned when they shield perpetrators and try to hush the victims so they can keep such incidents quiet.
Our experience, unfortunately, shows that employers are inclined to sweep the incidents under the rug and, in some instances, even defend the offender.
Of the cases reported, a 2021 survey by Aware found that only about four in 10 harassers were reassigned or dismissed. About another two in 10 reported a lack of action taken against the harasser despite clear evidence of the harassment.
Perpetrators may not be held to account because employers fear they are harder to replace, or have power and influence in the industry and might take retaliatory action against the organisation.
Others may have personal friendships with senior management and the board, making HR generally disinclined to rock the boat.
HR departments have even approached Catalyse, Aware’s training and consulting arm, asking for advice on how to persuade their CEOs to take action against senior leaders – often close friends of the CEO – who have well-documented records of harassment.
It goes without saying that workplace harassment must end. People deserve safe and inclusive places where they can give their best and thrive in what they do, instead of being subjected to insidious bullying and misconduct.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff. Swift action must be taken when such reports surface, instead of leaving the victims to fend for themselves.
And fend for themselves, they do. The 2021 Aware report found that workplace harassment has detrimental effects on work performance and career and financial progression.
Many respondents took leave of absence or changed jobs, often switching industries altogether, to escape the hostile environment.
In Singapore, laws protecting against harassment are the Protection from Harassment Act and the Penal Code. Both require the victims to take action against the perpetrator on their own.
Employers currently have no expressed obligation under any of Singapore’s laws to ensure their workplaces are free of harassment. Although there is the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment issued in 2016, which outlines progressive workplace practices, employers are encouraged but not required by law to adopt its procedures, principles and values.
While victims of workplace harassment can approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) for assistance in harassment cases, in 2022, only 5 per cent of WHDA cases were ultimately referred to Tafep. Many victims tell us they are discouraged from doing so when they hear that Tafep has no legal enforcement powers and limited administrative abilities.
Singapore has a chance to fix the scourge of workplace harassment. Mooted at the 2021 National Day Rally, efforts are under way to strengthen workplace fairness under the umbrella of the Workplace Fairness Legislation (WFL).
Although first framed as a move to tackle discriminatory hiring practices, a tripartite committee has since submitted 22 recommendations that aim to strengthen employment practices more broadly including addressing retaliation, which the Government has accepted.
Unfortunately, although the final report of the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness does make noteworthy recommendations to move us closer to protecting workers against discrimination – including defining discrimination, broadening protected characteristics to encompass mental health and caregiving responsibilities, and expanding pregnancy to encompass breastfeeding mothers and those aspiring to have children – the proposals fall short of tackling harassment in the workplace.
Some recommendations – such as prohibiting retaliatory actions against those who report workplace discrimination or harassment, and the requirement for grievance handling procedures – can alleviate issues pertaining to workplace harassment. Yet, these do not mandate employers to take steps to prevent and address harassment nor hold them liable if they fail to do so.
Employers are in a position to take steps to prevent and effectively manage such issues. They should be required to do so.
In fact, while discrimination and harassment may appear to be completely separate issues on the surface, they are often closely intertwined. The people most susceptible to discrimination are also most at risk for harassment and vice versa, given unconscious bias and unhelpful stereotyping. For example, many cases seen by WHDA involve pregnant employees who suffered both discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
The same is true for many employees with caregiving responsibilities whom WHDA has supported.
We should not miss this opportunity to expand the ambit of the WFL, put in place protections against workplace harassment, and create a truly fair environment for all workers in Singapore.
The WFL must genuinely embody its name. It has to be a strong framework ensuring fairness, safety and inclusion in all workplaces. If the law protects only against discrimination and not harassment, it will fall short of living up to its name.
Sugidha Nithiananthan is director of advocacy, research and communications at Aware
Apoorva Shukla is executive at the Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory at Aware